Greenwashing... a misdemeanour or crime of the century?
There’s been a lot of comment and coverage on greenwashing over the last couple of months and while I’m all for truth, honesty and keeping things real I think we need to be careful not to let this spill over into zealotry and hysteria - reactions that, as we’ve seen in the past, tend not to produce helpful outcomes.
Greenwashing is, fundamentally, about businesses over-stating their environmental creds to make themselves look better than they really are; exaggerating and extending the truth to attract a little bit more love and attention.
If we accept that as accurate, then there are two key things we should consider -
The first is that there is always a kernel of truth at the heart of these overclaims. These businesses accused of greenwash are, by and large, actually doing something good from an environmental perspective - good enough that they feel it’s worth scheduling a meeting and bringing in the PR teams to explore how they can share the Good News with the world. Objectively this puts them in a very different position to the majority of businesses that are still not building environmental action into their business objectives and consequently have nothing to say. Should we really be directing all of our righteous anger at those that are trying to do the right thing. Or should we, like Alan Sugar, be giving the finger to the malingerers, the businesses hiding in the shadows, doing sweet FA.
The second is that businesses don’t write copy, people do. It’s easy to blame evil corporations for despicable actions, in fact it’s darkly reassuring. The reality though is that business decisions get made by people just like you and I, sitting in the sort of dysfunctional meetings we all sit in, with decision making processes based on seniority rather than knowledge. Somewhere between the initial brief from the sustainability team about the Good News and the final copy cooked up by the comms team and PR agency, the story gets re-framed, the headline gets re-written and the truth gets distorted. Somewhere in that process the decision gets made to share the business’ environmental achievements, in a way that definitely sounds more exciting, but is no longer entirely consistent with the facts. If and when this twisted story then makes it into the press and is received with cries of “Greenwash!” i think there are four doors at which blame can be laid -
- The sustainability team for being too timid in pointing out factual errors
- The comms for failing to defer to the sustainability team on the facts
- The PR team for failing to recognise the limits of their knowledge
- The publishing media for not subjecting the press releases they receive to basic scrutiny
So, greenwashing: misdemeanour or crime of the century?
Written by Simon Heppner, Founder of Net Zero Now.