Graham Birkenhead, July 25 2023

What's a little Greenwashing between friends?

It may sound harmless, but it has significant insidious effects - are you being greenwashed?

Greenwashing is the environmental evolution of whitewashing. Its outcome or impact is potentially devastating - in our ESG/PPP ecological balance consideration, the balance is way off as it emphasises a company's profitability (probably shorter term) at the expense of the environment and the trust of society.

To be fair, while some companies (certain large corporations for example) may have a deliberate approach to greenwashing (disinformation), many other companies may genuinely want to make a positive contribution to the environment and society, and yet get caught up in felt need to use 'green' jargon, or they may themselves be making assumptions about what truly is sustainable (misinformation) - which is partially down to the effects of greenwashing elsewhere.

So, here's some areas where you can take a look at your messaging and thinking to make sure you are washing whiter (as it were): 

Assumptions and oversimplification

In a complex world, we like to bring as much simplification to our decision making as possible. We use heuristics or mental models that we can apply to give us the ‘right answer’ quickly and efficiently - we often use the idea that somethings are good and others are bad. It is this natural tendency to categorise simply that often allows greenwashing to succeed.

We see words like, recyclable, biodegradable, sustainable, organic, or natural and we immediately feel good about them.  Many items, such as plastic bags, are supposedly recyclable (they have the symbol) but aren't in most places on earth; biodegradable often means it degrades marginally quicker than its non-biodegradable counterpart; glass is recyclable, but at what cost in energy usage, wood-pellets from sustainable forests may have been shipped huge distances. 

Shades of Green

There are 6 Shades of Greenwashing (Planet Tracker: The Greenwashing Hydra Report)

So what?  The 4 Fails of Greenwashing:

[1]   Greenwashing exploits individuals' desire to do good for the environment; it manipulates emotions and perceptions, leading to a false sense of contributing to positive change. Misinformed customers make purchasing decisions based on false information, leading to a false sense of environmental responsibility.  This is a Social / People fail.

[2]   It undermines legitimate efforts and diverts attention from genuinely sustainable businesses and practices, making it difficult for consumers to identify trustworthy environmentally conscious options.  A company that itself invests time and effort into greenwashing may be diverting its resources away from it's own path to survival. This is an Environment / Planet Fail.

[3]   When exposed as misleading, greenwashing will foster cynicism among consumers who may become skeptical of all environmental claims, making it harder for authentic sustainable businesses to gain credibility, and lead to disillusionment, eroding trust in businesses and institutions.  This ultimately will be a Governance / Profit Fail.

[4]   Ultimately, it delays real change.   This is the BIG Ecological system / Sustainability Fail.

And so:

As you work to build out your G(overnance) in balance with your E(nvironment) and S(ocial), take a good critical look at your messaging and the assumptions you are making about what you are doing.  Look up and down your value chain, hold others to account, question them about their claims.  Work with them to build a sustainable value chain.

Have you been greenwashed?  What stories or examples do you have about greenwashing?  Share them with me and I will compile a collection of stories.



* In case you missed them, our other recent blogs about the ESG / PPP balance for small and medium businesses:

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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