Forget Greenwash Hogwash: Why Sustainable Copywriting Matters

Choosing a niche is a hotly debated topic for humble copywriter folk. Some argue that they relish the variety their non-specialisms bring; others love to niche as a means of becoming more competitive. So, where does sustainable copywriting fit within this?

In the interests of ease, I’ve used the terms ‘sustainable copywriting’, ‘ethical copywriting’ and ‘eco-friendly copywriting’ interchangeably here. This helped to garner the widest range of responses in my research.

Strictly speaking, however, we could argue:

  • Sustainable copywriting relates to long-lasting alternatives e.g. upcycling fashion or the circular economy
  • Eco-friendly copywriting relates to specially designed green products, e.g. zero waste soaps
  • Ethical copywriting focuses on brands that actively shun anything that could harm plants, animals or other human beings.

Potato, potarto though, right? However you want to define it, these brands all want to make the world a better place. And through careful observation, I’ve noted that there are more and more copywriters cropping up who’ve chosen sustainability as a niche.

Thoughts from ethical copywriters

I set about speaking to writers and marketers who work almost exclusively with ‘ethical’ clientele. Research was pretty easy, I’ll admit – type ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’ into the ProCopywriters search bar and you’ll get results in double figures.

We saw some eye-opening results.

why ethical brands chartSeventy per cent of respondents said they wanted to work with clients whose values aligned with their own, whether that was a love of animals or revulsion for fast fashion. What I found really encouraging, however, was that half of us feel we produce better work when we believe in what we’re promoting.

Of course, we don’t all have positive motivations. I myself hold my hands up to working with a cocaine-fuelled gambling SEO agency many moons ago. Never again.

A fifth of copywriters blamed bad experiences for making the switch. Sally Fox says: “Prior to becoming a copywriter, I worked in the fast fashion industry. I learned a lot about the negative impact it has on the planet and on society.

“When I left, one of my main requirements for my new job was that it aligned more with my values.”

Another tells me a heart-breaking story of a mining company client, who later turned out to be responsible for a huge dam collapse. She’s done her bit to assuage her guilt since, but it’s astonishing how a bad experience can guide our career goals.

What’s the demand like for sustainable copywriting?

The likes of Greta Thunberg have doubtless inspired the next generation (and the current one, let’s hope) to have a more sustainable outlook. In tandem, we’re seeing a rise in consumer demand for ethical goods.

It’s no wonder that every single one of my respondents thinks sustainable copywriting demand is set to rise. But what’s the market like right now? I asked my Mother Earth-loving scribblers about their clients:

client sectors chart

Half of my participants worked with charities, while meat-free products came in close second. As somebody who works with organisations like Deafblind UK and York Against Cancer, I can’t tell you how rewarding it is to support these causes.

While I can’t speak for meat-free, it’s interesting to note that those who worked in such sectors were also keen to find clients with matching values. A vegan is bound to write more empathetically about vegan products, n’est pas?

Greenwashing: the ultimate turn-off

You might not be as familiar with the term ‘greenwashing’ as you might ‘whitewashing’ or even ‘pinkwashing’. Just as pinkwashing exploits the LGBT community to promote products, greenwashing exploits the sustainability movement.

Specifically, greenwashing is a form of marketing spin that seeks to convince consumers that products are ‘green’. The term dates back to 1986, but it’s become far more troubling in recent years.

You may remember the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, which some argue actually pushed back advancements in electric cars. It’s no wonder, then, that a third of participants cited ‘greenwashing’ as their top no-no when it comes to choosing clients.

industries to avoid chart

Better still, half of you would never promote fossil fuels. While the dangers of climate change are all too apparent, greenwashing is insidious. We’ve seen first-hand the number of brands who fail to practise what they preach.

Nike, for example, ran a campaign in June to support Black Lives Matter. At the time, there was a palpable lack of diversity on the management team.

Failing to follow up our words with actions not only damages the planet. It also wears away at the very integrity of branding, marketing, advertising – which is why it’s so important that ethical copywriters choose their clients carefully.

Changing the world one word at a time

I hasten to add that sustainable copywriters are not self-righteous. In fact, many of them made a point of mentioning that they are not here to preach, nor would they consider themselves activists.

Rather, they simply want to impart the virtues of making better choices, taking eco-friendliness from something trendy to making it commonplace.

“The fundamentals of marketing and copywriting are never going to change, but consumer behaviour does change. People still want products that are convenient, affordable, and trustworthy. But ethics, sustainability, and purpose are becoming part of that mix,” says Joe Clarke. “Either way, there is a boom coming for copywriters who specialise in communicating ethics and purpose.”

Alexis Bushnell, a social media manager for ethical businesses, adds: “What businesses do isn’t as important to me as how they do it. I hope that one day, ethical copywriting becomes so standard, it’s just known as ‘copywriting’.”

The future of sustainable marketing

It seems Alexis may be onto a winner – not a single respondent told me they had trouble finding clients. Moreover, a staggering number found clients on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Instagram – suggesting that ethical brands are very much becoming mainstream.

Does this mean that sustainable marketing will grow more competitive in future? Absolutely, as Katie Uniacke tells us. “I think there will be more call for it as the world wakes up.”

Hence, 80 per cent of respondents told me they do or have worked with ‘neutral’ organisations to keep themselves afloat, for example, virtual assistants or educators. As Ellen Forster puts it, many writers “work with neutral brands, but none that contradicts our morals”.

Putting yourself in the spotlight

This little exercise has certainly given me some food for thought about my current client base. I’m thrilled to say I work with several charities and a new social impact initiative. But there are many other brands out there who could doubtless do with that little push.

It’s also made some key points about how we market ourselves. If you’re going to market your brand as ethical, sustainable, eco-friendly or just here to make the world a better place, make sure you do it right. Take some tips from the experts:

  • Don’t try to dupe your customers by being economical with the truth, like hiding harmful ingredients
  • Be inclusive, but don’t use minorities to try and bolster your image
  • Give your marketers – and your customers – a reason to care
  • Harness social media to get your message across
  • Admit your mistakes and strive to be better
  • Hire a copywriter who cares!

A huge, heartfelt thanks to all the copywriters and marketers who contributed to this survey:

Sally Fox @sallymfoxwrites

Penny Kiley @pennykiley

Joe Clarke @joetclarke

Katie Uniacke @katieuniacke

Geiselle Adele

Alexis Bushnell @bushnells_cs

Ellen Forster


Rachel Baker

Karonica Paige @karonicapaige

Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
22nd October 2020