Milestone Anniversary – 20 Years of Greenwash

Milestone Anniversary – 20 Years of Greenwash

The term ‘Greenwash’ entered the Concise Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, but it’s probably been around a lot longer.   The definition is: ‘Disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image’.

The term was initially confined to the context of advertising with an environmentally-friendly focus designed to convince people of the eco credentials of particular products.   Latterly it has been used more widely – in reference to policies which appear to promote the well-being of the environment but in fact disguise deeper and more widespread issues of environment decay.

There are plenty of companies telling their environmental stories to the world – including some that probably shouldn’t be.  In 2015, an initiative jointly launched by BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) and Futerra issued a report called “Selling Sustainability” in which they listed 10 basic rules of Greenwash avoidance:

  1. Fluffy Language – words or terms with no clear meaning, e.g. ‘eco-friendly’
  2. Green Products vs Dirty Company – such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  3. Suggestive Pictures – Green images indicating an (un-justified) green impact, e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes
  4. Irrelevant Claims – Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is green
  5. Best in Class – Declaring you are slightly ahead of a pretty terrible bunch
  6. Just not Credible – ‘Eco friendly’ cigarettes anyone? ‘Greening’ a dangerous product does not make it safe
  7. Gobbledygook – Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  8. Imaginary Friends – a ‘label’ that looks like third-party endorsement… except that it’s made up
  9. No Proof – It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
  10. Out-right Lying – totally fabricated claims or data

I said in an earlier article “Say What You Do, Do What You Say” that it’s no longer good enough for a business to just say it does good things; it must also ‘walk that talk’.   As Generation Y (the millennials) – and more so with Generation Z – become customers and employees they demand a greater social (and ecological) conscience.

Millennials strive to buy where their values lie.  They will reward a company with loyalty if its behaviour matches their own ethics.  More importantly – this socially connected generation will punish a brand if it doesn’t.

I’m hoping that this 20th anniversary sees a tipping point.  Consumers – partly due to generational shift, partly due to a change in attitudes – increasingly believe that company values should go beyond corporate self-interest.   They support workers’ rights.  They want to protect the environment.

But a business still has to make decisions that make commercial sense.   Many in the sustainability community will claim that ‘buying green’ does – but it doesn’t always work that way.   There is often a ‘green premium’, which makes the decision a moral rather than a commercial choice.   For many businesses in tough trading environments, this just isn’t an option.

Procurement is uniquely placed to drive change in this area.  Sustainability is really about transformation and integration with the overall strategy of the company.  The procurement community can bring together suppliers and users to devise new ways of working that deliver more sustainable practice.

But still, 20 years on, it isn’t easy being green.  In 2019 if you want to transform your business’ impact on the environment it requires a significant commitment in terms of time, resources and people.  It also entails no small amount of risk.    It might be a milestone anniversary, but the term isn’t going to be consigned to history any time soon.