PR gimmicks get you to a dead end in the sustainability journey

sustainability conference
Delegates look on during a sustainability conference held in Nairobi in November 2018. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA  

The other day while having lunch at an event in a city hotel almost everyone around my table enquired from our waitress if the juice served alongside meals was natural.

Shortly after, she returned with two packets of fresh juice, conveniently labelled ‘100 percent natural.’

She poured us the drink and we neatly washed down our bites happy with our ‘healthy’ choice. But it got me thinking. Was the juice really natural with zero additives or was the label just a marketing strategy to speak consumers’ language while conveniently misleading them?

As a personal anecdote and one that many homes can probably relate to, whenever blended fresh juice goes past the fourth day even when refrigerated, the taste drastically changes, and spoilage soon follows. Now, I’m not sure how packaged juice can retain the same taste with a relatively long expiry window, completely natural.

Not so long-ago toothpaste was either white with colored stripes, or red. Then the green wave arrived, carrying with it the ‘herbal’ label and toothpastes changed colour to green. Whether the green pigmentation is a result of the herbal concoction infused is beyond my scope to establish. The same could be said for many household products.


Whatever the case, one thing is for sure. The green marketing strategy seems to be paying off as evidenced by customer purchases.

And it’snot surprising. All the shifting sands of consumer tastes are moving towards healthier, ecofriendly goods and services amid personal and society challenges brought home by urbanisation and climate change.

It’s for this reason that businesses are increasingly coming under pressure to embed sustainable practices in their value chains for the greater good of people and planet or at least be seen to be doing so. As such, communicating such measures with customers has taken a central place in promoting brands as responsible and caring. Whether it’s through product labels, advertisements, company websites, public relations campaigns and sustainability reports, brands want to look good in their clients’ eyes.

There’s always that temptation, however, to paint a more glamorous picture than the reality, making such a move a purely public relations exercise, otherwise known as green-washing within the sustainability circles. Firms might dishonestly report ecofriendly features they purport to have embraced or conveniently hide their dark, not-so-environmentally practices just to click with their audience. The business of optics and marketing spins cannot stand on its own and is far from sustainable.

Communication of company practices should be done in an honest way, whether it’s internally among employees or externally through media, PR campaigns and sustainability reports. It’s only by being transparent that businesses can be mindful of the impact their operations have on the society and allow for incremental improvement.

Besides the pressure to endear themselves to customers through green behaviour, companies are also turning to environmentally friendly practices to appease their employees.

Most employees nowadays want to see their jobs as a way of contributing to the betterment of the world, besides their paycheck. No wonder we’re increasingly seeing top talent gravitating towards companies with clear-cut sustainability agenda. It’s quickly becoming a talent attraction and retention selling point in the labour market.

This pressure could therefore lead corporates into green washing their staff, not just consumers, further pushing businesses down the rabbit hole of unsustainable practices, from which it’s hard to recover.

Such organisations would rather sink millions of shillings into masking their operations to repair public perception of their brand than channel the resources towards the right thing.

Most often the unsuspecting consumers fall for the well-crafted PR gimmicks. Marketing gurus have long known the priceless secret that consumers are not always rational when making purchases. If anything, they’re led by emotions with trendy optics evoking such passions.

To this end, public watchdogs like the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) have an important role to play in safeguarding the interests of the wider society from unscrupulous players, not only producers but also marketing firms.

Just like external auditors do due diligence before giving an expert opinion around their clients’ financial statements, there is need for firms to engage in external verification that will help in enhancing of the credibility of sustainability report and improves internal reporting processes.

So why should corporate Kenya adopt sustainability behaviour?

Among other things, sustainable practices help inject discipline among firms to live for the greater good of mankind by improving ecological footprint, better conditions for employees, reducing waste, increasing consumer engagement and loyalty, better risk management all of which results to competitive advantage to the firm which is a recipe for a healthy bottom line.