Corporate social responsibility has gone mainstream. But unless corporations communicate their CSR achievements wisely, they risk being accused of greenwashing.

Corporate social responsibility, once seen as peripheral to companies’ main businesses, has been becoming standard practice, with an increasing number of businesses engaging in CSR activities. For example, in a 2007 global survey of corporate managers, the Economist Intelligence Unit found that the majority of respondents (55.2%) considered CSR a high or very high priority for their company, a significant increase from three years previously (33.9%). An even greater majority (68.9%) expected the importance of CSR to increase in the future.

Given that corporations are increasingly engaging in CSR activities, it makes sense to communicate those achievements to stakeholders. However, in publicizing CSR achievements, especially if they do so aggressively, corporations risk achieving the opposite result from what they intended — a so-called “boomerang response” described by Robert K. Merton and Patricia L. Kendall in 1944. Given the general public’s distrust of major corporations, it is not unreasonable for a corporation to fear that stakeholders will perceive attempts to communicate CSR achievements as “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing, in its narrow sense, refers to the use of environmentalism or green credentials to suggest that a company’s policies and products are environmentally friendly. More broadly, the term describes public relations aimed at giving the false impression that a corporation is genuinely engaged in CSR. It is reasonable to be concerned that even companies that seriously engage in CSR could be perceived cynically by stakeholders. After all, most stakeholders cannot directly witness a corporation’s CSR policies or initiatives and to a great extent must rely on the corporation’s own reporting.

A key challenge for managers, then, is to minimize stakeholder skepticism and communicate CSR achievements without being accused of greenwashing. To better address this challenge, this article draws on a collaborative research project by faculty from the IE School of Communication at IE University, the Judge Business School of the University of Cambridge and Fondazione Università IULM, in partnership with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. In this project, we investigated the CSR communication practices of the largest (in terms of revenue) 251 European corporations and conducted in-depth interviews with 69 managers handling CSR communications.