Does reducing plastics in its packaging make an oil company or meat processing company sustainable? Does a green image equal to sustainable business?
A typical example of greenwashing is a sustainability claim, which do not mention any environmental impacts the product or service may have. Another form of greenwashing is an environmental claim that is too general or slogan-like, and it does not justify on what basis the product or service is claimed to be environmentally friendly. The third form of greenwashing is intentional or unintentional lying, meaning that no reliable information can be found to support the sustainability claims.
In the past decades, companies’ responsibility work consisted of mainly individual campaigns or projects. Later, for example, instead of sending Christmas cards to its stakeholders or giving year-end bonuses, the money could be donated to charity, enabling the company to declare itself being a responsible, tax-paying business.
Recently, sustainability has become a topic of greater stakeholder interest: organizations began investing in sustainability and creating separate responsibility organizations. The task for these organizations was usually to integrate the sustainable development principles across the entire company. Future-oriented promises for example “we will be carbon neutral by 2050” are typical examples reflecting these ambitions. However, these promises, which are good as such, can turn into greenwashing unless there is a credible plan on how to achieve this goal or the concrete measures are left for the very distant future.
Today, sustainability goals are increasingly integrated directly into the company’s strategy and business operations. Sustainability communication and marketing are characterized by a strong need for showing evidence and verification. If an organization says that it acts responsibly and is carbon neutral, it must be able to demonstrate with help of data how much it actually has decreased its emissions – or how much its products or services are reducing the environmental burden.
Often greenwashing may be much more insidious. For example, a company may not make actual environmental claims but focuses on creating a sustainable image with help of visual elements such as usage of green color or material choices. A green image can be amplified by, for example, utilizing social media influencers, earned media or by leading the conversation in a direction that is irrelevant from the company’s business perspective. In the worst case, an environmental claim does not speak about the qualities of the product or service but is only a vague promise of a future ambition.
Credible responsibility work with focus on environment is aligned with the planetary boundaries, – and it is a communication asset towards an organization’s key stakeholders. A credible sustainability communication is based on facts, data and transparency. There is no need to be perfect in everything – simply being transparent, also in showing weaknesses and pointing out work yet to be done, is a great means for creating stakeholder trust.
CEO, Third Rock Finland