We’re for truth, no matter who tells it
By Kathy Illingworth, Head of Sustainability Consulting
Just over three years ago, a Swedish climate activist with a penchant for challenging global leaders boldly told them, “We’ll be watching you.”
But for all the conversation around sustainability and the climate crisis, disappointment about the lack of real progress was palpable at the most recent convening of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
As global business leaders jostle to position themselves as environmental champions, the clock continues to tick for the environment.
Amid a never-ending flow of bullish pledges, sceptical observers – Ms Thunberg herself included – continue to voice fears of ‘greenwashing’. This term refers to groundless environmental claims by businesses seeking to launder their image without making serious changes.
Social media and corporate websites are awash with false claims, and marketers are risking their firms as a result.
Delay, deception and decades of false promises. Vague, misleading or unfounded information about products’ environmental characteristics. For some companies, it might not even be intentional.
But one thing is for certain – corporate ‘greenwashing’ must end if the world hopes to meet climate goals.
Beyond the corporate façade
A collective double-take in the mirror is long overdue. Honesty and accountability are our best tools to become a more sustainable society. When brands highlight the positive things, they do for people and the planet, it’s much easier to build trust and the loyal relationships these businesses say they’re after.
In recent years, corporate executives and investors have enthusiastically jumped into the fight to address climate change, with hundreds of the world’s largest companies committing themselves to eliminating their carbon footprints by the middle of the century. Going green is the new black for big business.
But how real is the climate-friendly revolution that’s being advertised? What these corporate commitments mean depends on who you ask. To some, it represents the most significant advance toward putting the world on track to slow global warming; to others, it’s a whole bunch of greenwashing that amounts to little more than a press release.
It recently emerged that 53% of the analysed green claims in the EU were misleading or simply false. Worse still, it’s difficult to navigate, and consumers’ environmental literacy is very low.
Don’t trust words, trust actions
A few short years ago, ‘green marketing’ and vague promises of action often received little scrutiny.
Thankfully, companies will no longer be able to make misleading green claims under a draft EU law to be proposed in March. This is a considered attempt to address the complicity of culture within our environmental crisis by creating a level playing field for businesses when marketing their environmental credentials.
Nothing is sacred, and no one is safe from scrutiny. And the bluster of greenwash pervades many sectors, collectively blinding us to the scale of change needed and obscuring where the true solutions lie.
In recent years, transnational corporations have been greenwashing their dismal environmental performance by posing as friends of the environment. Why? Because our financial system places impossible demands upon a finite world.
Greenwashing misleads us; it’s unfair to businesses making the right changes and acts as a giant placebo – making us think that change is happening when it’s not.
Businesses promote their environmental awareness through green buildings, eco-labels, sustainability reports, industry pledges and clean technologies. When are these symbols wasteful corporate spin, and when do they signal authentic environmental improvements?
There is a transcendent power in an example, and we help businesses make genuine and concerted efforts to improve the world. That includes tackling greenwashing and building trust in environmental performance data.
We encourage methodical introspection and ensure that those doing the correct thing for the environment stand out for their choices. Together with clients, we work to raise the overall standard of the marketplace, allowing us all to make better purchasing decisions in the future.
For consumers trying to shop the planet green, the UK competition watchdog’s potential examination of FMCG and businesses is another timely wake-up call.
Suppose consumers can confidently choose products that are better for the environment. In that case, this rewards companies that do the right thing, drives competition around greener products, and can shift whole sectors and markets toward sustainability.