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ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

With ESG (environmental, social and governance) funds capturing a record US$51.1 billion in net new money from global investors last year, consumers, investors, regulators and journalists have become more vigilant about greenwashing. Greenwashing conveys a false impression to consumers and other stakeholders on a company’s willingness, ability or contribution towards environmental protection.

To avoid the suspicion of greenwashing, we have compiled a checklist on the best practices and pitfalls of ESG communications efforts.  In addition, we interviewed Key Gu, Director, Marketing and Platform Management, Greater China at BSI Group, a global business improvement and standards company, and Jun Xun Tan, Head of Content at PR Newswire, to discuss how brands can better coordinate their ESG programs and communications.


ESG Communications Checklist 


 1. Make unsubstantiated claims 

Crafting unsubstantiated claims such as going ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ looks hollow and lacks persuasiveness.

  2. Write in technical jargon

Using technical jargon that is only understood by science experts is likely to put journalists and audiences off.

  3. Make misleading statements

In 2020, UK’s Advertising Standards Authority pointed out that a food company made misleading claims that its packaging “reduces consumers’ carbon footprint” without any supporting information.

  4. Avoid specific commitments when setting climate goals  

If companies want to be aligned to targets such as the United Nations’ carbon neutrality by 2050 goals, it needs to set clear and long-term plans.


1. Link your goals to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

These goals, which were set up in 2015, aim to eradicate poverty and protect the planet.

2. Set specific, measurable and time-bound ESG goals

Let journalists and audiences see that your company is closing the gap between long-term climate goals and short-term action plans.

3. Quantify the impact of your ESG targets  

Quantify the impact of targets that are related to your product and industry. This will help journalists and other audiences understand the environmental significance of these targets.

4. Provide third-party verification

Are your commitments supported by third-party verification or reported by trusted media?


 1.  What do you think of this checklist? Can you share some headlines of recent ESG press releases that should be avoided?

Key Gu:  Given the growing awareness of sustainable development, I think this list is timely. Be it deliberately or unintentionally exaggerating one’s own achievements, greenwashing can bring about serious consequences for brands as it destroys the trust between the brand and its customers. Once that trust is broken, it is difficult to regain it.

I would like to add another pitfall – looking too eager to label themselves as being ESG-friendly.  I think press release headlines that lack details like “Brand Y introduces eco-friendly appliances for a healthy planet” are quite common. This headline does not draw any association with any aspects of environmental protection, and the second part of the sentence reads like an “ESG for the sake of ESG” label.

Jun Xun Tan: As PR professionals read the pitfalls listed in the checklist, they can evaluate whether any alarm bells are going off internally, so that they can avoid writing press release headlines such as “Company Z Sets Goal to Achieve Carbon Neutrality by 2050.”

Such a title might be factual, but if we were to read this from a reader’s perspective, the outcomes might be unsatisfactory. Firstly, the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is set by the United Nations. A declaration that a company will meet this goal is not a strong news hook as more companies are committing to achieve carbon neutrality earlier.

Secondly, the audience might not understand that this goal is set by the United Nations. They may question the sincerity of a company committing to a goal that might only be met 29 years later. To educate audiences on the context of a company’s “race to zero” journey, relevant information on the United Nations’ 2050 goal has to be woven into the press release.


2.  Share two examples of ESG news headlines that have caught your attention, and why?

Key Gu: Show, don’t tell: Focus on details and actions instead of unsubstantiated claims. Instead of ‘Brand Y introduces eco-friendly appliances’, why not write ‘Brand Y introduces appliances made of 100% recycled materials’.

For example, Novartis announced ambitious ESG targets to increase access to medicine and achieve complete carbon neutrality – this headline indicates that Novartis attaches great importance to ESG and shows a strong association to its business.

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

Another example is BSI Group: Join hands with partners to overcome the difficulties and welcome the fifth anniversary of the Sustainable Development Goals. In conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the setting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), this headline mentions that the BSI Group and its partners are working together to implement projects in this area.

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

Jun Xun Tan: In March this year, China declared that its carbon dioxide emissions will peak by 2030, and it strives to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In the first half of 2021, the number of press releases on carbon neutrality and ESG distributed by PR Newswire in the Asia-Pacific region grew from 23 in January to 401 in September. Journalists can choose from a wider range of ESG-related information. Therefore, if PR professionals want to stand out in this field, they have to work harder.

As mentioned in the checklist, press release headlines should include specific, measurable and time-bound ESG goals or highlight advanced technological solutions that will help readers better understand how the company is working towards achieving carbon neutrality.

Examples of such press release headlines include Apple commits to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030, and Hong Leong Bank Seeks Digital Disruptors Across Southeast Asia to Find ESG-Focused Innovative Solutions for Banking and Financial Services. Hong Leong Bank’s headline pairs bold language (‘seek digital disruptors’) with an innovative initiative (launching an ESG hackathon in ASEAN). By adopting a co-creation approach to ESG, the bank is signalling its openness to new ideas as it seeks to enhance digital banking products and experiences while improving its “green quotient”.


READ MORE: From The Editor’s Desk (August 2021): Showing a Company’s Value Through ESG Press Releases


3.  How can companies adjust their communication strategies to be aligned with its carbon neutrality initiatives?

Key Gu: When it comes to communicating initiatives related to carbon neutrality, it is necessary to do the right things first so that this forms the basis to communicate confidently and withstand the scrutiny of stakeholders.

This includes 1. Checking the current status of a company’s current carbon emission levels; 2. planning a carbon-neutral roadmap that is in accordance with science-backed targets and industry standards; 3. Obtaining a third-party audit report and certification.

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

Although there are various standards and certifications for carbon neutrality, I will focus on how a company can use PAS 2060, an internationally recognised specification for carbon neutrality to align ESG initiatives and communications more effectively. This year, Castrol announced a comprehensive sustainable development strategy, PATH360, which includes initiatives on reducing waste and carbon emissions, and improving the lives of people around the world.

PATH360 has laid out its goals and framework clearly. Among them, PATH360 mentioned that the company plans to produce more carbon-neutral products in key areas such as automotive, industrial manufacturing.

The standard for carbon neutrality will be verified by an independent third-party and certified in accordance with BSI’s PAS 2060 carbon neutrality standard. This news has been reported in trade publications such as Fuels & Lubes Asia and Polymer Update.


About the interviewee

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases

Key Gu is the Director, Marketing and Platform Management, Greater China at BSI Group. Gu holds an MBA in Business Administration jointly offered by the University of Hong Kong and Fudan University. He has more than 10 years of marketing experience, spanning B2B and B2C industries, and is passionate about digital marketing. In 2019, he joined the BSI Group and is responsible for the company’s marketing.

BSI enables people and organizations to perform better, sharing knowledge, innovation and best practice to make excellence a habit. Since its establishment in 1901, as the world’s first national standards organization and a founding member of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), BSI is committed to pursuing excellence and promoting the adoption of best practices by global organizations. The BSI Group works with over 86,000 customers across multiple industries in 195 countries and regions around the world.



For more trends and best practices on developing an effective ESG communications strategy, download PR Newswire’s ESG Communications Handbook here.

ESG Communications Checklist: How Brands Can Avoid Greenwashing in Press Releases