Greenwashing language. How to help your team avoid it.

3 things to avoid and 3 things to do, so you (and your CEO) avoid greenwashing language.


When you’re doing good things, it’s easy to think you can just write about them and the world will appreciate what you’re doing. But people are more sceptical, less trusting of marketing. So how do you avoid greenwashing your language? What can you say that doesn’t appear to be overclaiming on your ESG activities? How can you use your brand’s tone of voice to make sure you appear completely honest?
Here are 3 things you can avoid to appear less than genuine, and 3 tips you can successfully use to make your tone of voice more convincing.
Tony’s are doing good things.
So’s DASH (wonky fruit).
So’s Ellevest (no-bro’ finance).
And they’re doing a good job talking about it.
Which is rare.
Marketing teams who are doing the good stuff often can’t find the good language.What are the consequences of not knowing how to talk about sustainability?
You come off as inauthentic.
You’re accused of greenwashing for overclaiming.
You waste all that marketing investment of the last couple of years.

Avoid these 3 things and it’s less likely you’ll be accused of greenwashing language: 

1. Show expertise. But don’t kill their enthusiasm with technicals.
I love ACE’s ingenuity.
I love how they understand the scale of the problem.
I could never do what they’re doing.
But isn’t their story back to front?
They made the technical stuff the main character.
And the need for what they do? That only appears in a supporting role.
Q: Are you overcommunicating how technically brilliant you are, before narrating what the problem is and the world you’re trying to create?

2. Don’t try and mug the consumer. Ever.
Yep, we’ve got to talk about Brewdog.
I mean, obviously, you’re not going to do something as crass as this in greenwashing language, are you?
Unless you do something as crass as this.
Or as denying-of-your-contribution-to-the-problem-in-the-first-place, as this.
If stupid ideas were oil, I’d bid for prospecting rights in every ad, PR and design agency in the world.
If you think something isn’t moral, do your best to stop it.
There’s always something else to talk about.


3. Don’t catastrophise. Even in a catastrophe.
The problem with catastrophes, other than the actual catastrophe bit, is that most people won’t/can’t believe in them.
Fear paralyses.
Eventually, the fear message becomes background noise.
We are masters of managing mental dissonance.
Use your brand’s personality to help people personally relate to the message.

BBC report on UN's 'Code Red for Humanity'

(c) BBC

Instead, if you’re doing good and you don’t want to appear to be greenwashing language, try these 3 tips:

1. You can be serious without being sanctimonious.

Reformation’s tone of voice. It’s better than Patagonia’s.

I love Smart but not snarky. To the point but with relatable humanity.
It’s like the Warren Buffet of women’s apparel copywriting.
If you’re doing good stuff, it’s ok to take yourself lightly.
Check out what shows up just on their metatext:



2. It’s ok to be divisive.

Everyone stands for something.
Talking about what you’re prepared to take a stand against marks you out as trustworthy.
Ellevest are damn clear on this:

Ellevest show what they stand for by showing what they stand against.

Ellevest show what they stand for by showing what they stand against.



3. Tell a story

I’m big on how narrative is better than the usual midden heap of copy.

  • Especially bullet points.
  • Which stand out.
  • But flatten the charm in the process.
  • Like a ballet line of elephants dancing through a vicarage garden flower bed.

‘Narrative’ usually means a choiceful, coherent selection of facts to iterate one point of reference for the wandering minds of your customers.
Sometimes though, a good ‘once upon a time’ narrative works well when you’re doing some good.
Here’s how Dad Grass does it.
(Thanks to the wonderful EatBigFish consultancy for bringing this to my attention.)

DAD Grass shows how to use language to avoid greenwashing

A simple framework can help you avoid greenwashing language.

Use the ‘3 levels of the voice’ to make your copywriting work harder.

If you feel like your comms can come off as greenwashing, take a look at the 3 levels framework.
Where’s the problem located?

Are you claiming to stand for something that the company doesn’t really believe in?
That’s a 10,000ft problem.
What does the company believe in that it could talk about more honestly?

Is what you’re saying trying to sound too Patagonia or too Tony’s – and not quite you?
Go back to your personality level of your tone of voice – the 1000 ft level.
Which of your tonal values can you turn up to 10 to make your good work stand out?

Are you too technical? Or trying to be too serious?
Take a look at how you’ve defined your voice’s Ground Level Details

Here’s the framework to use:


Got stuck talking about the good stuff?
Or worried you’re in danger of greenwashing your marketing?

You can do something about it.
1. You can always buy me a coffee if you want me to look at something you’ve written. I’d like that.
2. If it’s a meatier issue, email me and we’ll find a time to make a plan.
3. Not quite sure what the issue is, but want to spend some time thinking about your marketing language?  Read a best-selling book* about controlling your tone of voice.

Remember, we’re the language animal. We use language to share ideas.
Book some time doing just that with me. Just book a 30 minute chat.

Rory Sutherland called it ‘a cracking book’.
Other people have used it to 10x their content, align their CEO with their brand language (finally!) or understand why their brand’s tone of voice was wonkier than DASH’s fruit.
It now has over fifty 5* reviews.
Buy it, and you can start doing some good stuff, too.
* It’s an affiliate link. That means, if you buy the book, you don’t pay a penny more, but Jeff B stops by my house and gives me a half cup of sugar.And here’s the link again to save you the trouble of scrolling back to the top.
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Want to talk language and brand tone of voice with Chris?

Wouldn’t you like to talk to Chris about some brand voice issue? He won’t bite. Well, he might bite a biscuit, if you buy him a coffee and biscuit. Set up a 20 minute call where you can dive into Chris’ experience, just for the price of a coffee. Do it here:



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