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A greenwash check: are you serious?

By January 14, 2016 Stakeholder No Comments
Tree on rocks

The headline read:

A simple greenwash detection tip: check what the firm puts on its home page

Are you serious?

How can words on the web serve as a reliable guide to a company’s action on sustainability?

As a science communicator who specialises in corporate sustainability, I make part of my living from telling clients that words and aspirations are not proof of positive action.  People want to see results.

So, on this occasion my confidence in science journalism (and perhaps the credibility of science) was shaken when this story about a study of corporate sustainability in The Conversation caught my eye.

Not only was the research covered by The Conversation, it was published in the scientific journal, Conservation Biology, and the story was tweeted by a top NGO, further endorsing the message.

The study’s thesis that words in a company’s mission statement and on a website home page are a guide to an organisation’s actions on sustainability is flawed. When did words ever speak louder than actions?

Anyone with a working knowledge of organisational culture knows corporate behaviour provides a more revealing insight into a company’s true priorities than mission statements and website home pages.

If you don’t believe me, ask Guy Pearse, whose comprehensive research of corporate sustainability exposed a litany of greenwash carbon scams, which was reported in The Conversation during 2012. It continues today with most of the corporates sponsoring the COP21 talks in Paris not publishing data on CO2 emissions.

Still not convinced about greenwash?

Well, see the mea culpa on the home page of Volkswagen, which was exposed for cheating environmental regulators about gas emissions from vehicles sold in the United States. Volkswagen was ranked – based on what it had been publishing in core communications products – the number one automotive company by the Dow Jones Sustainability Index (a ranking which is now under investigation).

So the conclusion of the “greenwash” study’s authors that sustainability in general will not be achieved unless its importance is widely apparent in core communication products of organisations is wrong.

Although corporate communications (annual reports, websites) are more reliable than marketing communications (advertising, promotions, see COP21) for assessing action on sustainability, they can be misleading (see Volkswagen).

One irony in corporate sustainability is that many of the firms which have embedded sustainability in day-to-day business actually make less noise about it. There are exceptions, of course, yet it’s usually first-time sustainability reporters which spruik contributions to the environment and society on their websites.

To the study’s credit (the headline in The Conversation and associated posts on social media may misrepresent the study’s findings) it does question the true strength of the relationship between sustainable practice and business aspirations. Yet corporate culture is where the study should have focused.

As sustainability management consultant David Ross wrote recently, unless an organisation’s values and culture are right, it won’t have the willing participants needed to realise a sustainability vision.

One example of corporate behaviour which serves as a reliable guide to a company’s action on sustainability is the practice of measuring the impact of community investments. As this report warns, if companies aren’t monitoring the value of sustainability initiatives, they may not be serious about them.

Another indicator for true corporate sustainability in action is evidence of genuine collaboration with stakeholders, and, in particular, how fairly power is shared with the relevant parties by the company involved.

The abstract for the study’s scientific paper published in Conservation Biology starts “Conservation can be achieved only if sustainability is embraced as core to organizational cultures.”

I agree.

However websites and mission statements are not evidence that this is happening. You need to look deeper inside an organisation (at what they actually do), if you want know whether greenwash is at work.

About Mark Paterson

Mark’s first job was milking cows. An award-winning career in journalism followed. These days when he's not trying to save coral reefs in Indonesia, dreaming about playing tennis on the Masters circuit or raising three kids in a blended family he thrives on consulting work that connects profit with people and planet. The son of corgi breeders, Mark would like to change the world for the better. Read more posts by Mark.

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