How to spot Greenwash?

With the sustainability agenda being more important than ever before, more and more companies will be trying to look good. How do we distinguish the genuine from the false?

How to spot Greenwash?

The landscape has changed remarkably in the last nine years since my business started measuring success not simply on profits but also on our impact on the world. Back in 2015 we were considered unusual, maybe slightly weird, and at least one supplier called me a hippy. Not true – apart from anything else I am way too young!  Now though it is considered chic to be sustainable and many businesses proudly feature their sustainability credentials in their marketing collateral. So, how do we distinguish those that are only doing this to fuel their single bottom line of profit from those companies who genuinely want their business to be and do good.

First, does it matter if companies are doing good for the wrong reasons? Surely if they are better for the planet, the people in their supply chain, their local community, and their workers than they were 5 years ago, then that’s a good thing, right? That’s a strong argument and I used to get more worked up about imposters than I do now.  If the dial is moving in the right direction, even if their motivations are wrong, then some progress has been made.

That’s true, but I would question whether that kind of progress which is usually tweaking around the edges is truly going to reverse the main issues bad business has created in our society. We seem to be on the edge of massive climate breakdown, and we already have a UK society that is more unequal than ever before. Surely, we need radically good businesses that are moving the dial quicker than it is currently moving.

One question to ask to discern greenwash is who owns the company. Companies that are owned by institutional investors usually only have one purpose alone, namely increasing returns for shareholders.  They may be behaving sustainable in some ways but when that costs more money, the motivation to do it decreases rapidly.

Secondly, how do they talk about their social or environmental purpose? Our company has been involved in helping a poor rural community in Western Kenya for 13 years and to start with we didn’t really talk about it to our suppliers and customers. It was them who encouraged us to talk more about the charitable work we were doing. I didn’t want people to think we were only doing the work to talk about it, so if anything, we hid our light under a bushel. Compare that to companies like Brewdog who famously talked about a forest they were developing to offset carbon before a single tree was planted.

A third question to ask is “What is the real motivation of a company’s sustainability programme?” To look good or to do good? It’s not an easy thing to do to scrape under the surface to discover a company’s DNA and unearth potential greenwash, but there are often some clues. How much are the people you are dealing with at the business engaged in their mission? Is the product or service one that contributes socially or environmentally? Is the company involved in lobbying government against potential legislation that would clearly do good e.g. laws restricting ultra-processed food? What about the very nature of the product or service? Is that itself good? Consider the oil companies’ advertising at present. Almost all of it is around sustainability, yet a tiny percentage of what they do is sustainable.

Human intuition is a wonderful thing and often we sense in a business’s message that something doesn’t smell right. Alternatively, we can often have a great sense that that a business is trying to do something good. Businesses like ours get stuff wrong and often could be better, but I would dearly hope our motivation is always right. Let’s not be afraid to call out greenwash, but let’s also get our own house in order first.

Paul Hargreaves
Paul Hargreaves

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