“Greenwashing” accusations often hit the wrong people

“Greenwashing” accusations often hit the wrong people

I am active in various networks that deal with sustainable business. Whether in groups for the Economy for the Common Good, in various Circular Economy networks such as the Circular Economy Club, the Cradle to Cradle NGO or the Experts Group of CSR Consultants or the Pioneers of Change. I very much appreciate the exchange at the various levels, and often get into contact with other sustainability initiatives or NGOs. We all agree that far too little has been thought and invested in the direction of sustainability so far. However, when some actions by businesses are then quickly labelled “greenwashing”, I get annoyed. Because I believe that this term does not help anyone, on the contrary, it causes damage.

What is “greenwashing”?

Greenwashing “is where a firm spends time and money advertising and marketing that their goods or services are environmentally friendly when, in fact, they are not.” This is one of the descriptions in the business world. That would definitely be reprehensible, and I understand the annoyance of people who think sustainably. I get this impression with some advertising measures, but I do not presume to reproach myself for this without a deeper insight into the company.

After all, a campaign is often called “greenwashing” if the company is not considered sustainable per se. But where do we draw the line? Wouldn’t it be better to show potential customers what they should look out for when choosing products rather than to judge something as “bad” in general? It often seems to me that the “sustainable people” want to set themselves apart from the “non-sustainable”, in the sense of the “good” and the “bad”.

What is the point of the accusation?

What do persons who calls a company of “greenwashing” want to achieve? My understanding is: They want to point out to others that the company is not serious about its efforts to achieve greater sustainability. And probably attack the company itself and point out that the steps are not enough.

What do they achieve? They are probably getting applause and approval from some people who are also sustainable and who generally consider the company to be unsustainable. This approval could have been achieved without the public denouncing. And they get attention because they are the “good guys” who uncover the “evil behaviours”. If that is the main reason for the attack, then that’s fine. Whether this will help to make it more sustainable remains to be seen. In my opinion, the greater effect would be if I could persuade the company to take more / further sustainable measures.

Why does it hit the wrong people?

The accusation of greenwashing often hits the wrong people. It hits those people who want to push the change to more sustainability in the company. Because let’s take a look at the company that has done or communicated something sustainable, but in many other areas does not act sustainably. How did the sustainable actions come about? We can distinguish between two cases.

  1. It was a deliberate action on new sustainable products or approaches. So there were individual people, partly at the decision-maker level, who probably pushed through this measure against resistance. They were glad that they had achieved this first step towards sustainable behavior, because they wanted to be with the “good”, not the “bad” (environmental destroyers). Now they are accused from the outside of not being serious. From the inside, they are being accused of “you see, it’s no use anyway”. Do we expect these people to bring the next sustainable ideas to the company?
  2. It was a marketing activity to make the company look better. The attacks largely bounce back because nobody was serious in the first instance. The “fans” of the company are not deterred by this, everyone else will be very critical of any future action towards sustainability. Will this lead to the company becoming more sustainable?

Which way would be better?

If our goal is for the company to become more sustainable, the path should be different. “Holding them to account”, so we take the company at its word. Let us evaluate the first steps positively and encourage those who have introduced these changes. Let us point out what else is needed to become more sustainable. Let us offer help. These are steps that will help us to achieve our goals much sooner. Only if, of course, our aim is to achieve sustainability. And not to get attention. Because it is widely known from motivation theory that punishing does not motivate sustainably and does not promote positive behavior. It leads to defensive behavior and ensures that punishment is averted. Only if you are lucky, positive behavior is encouraged.

Why don’t we reward companies for the steps they take towards greater sustainability? Why don’t we encourage those in the company who have new, sustainable ideas? We are happy to help any company that is serious about transformation and shares our vision of a world without waste. No matter how far along you are. Because the hardest thing is often to make a move, to take the first steps. Contact us for a Sense Check. This is an approximately 30-minute conversation in which we develop a common understanding for the next steps – and if we have a basis to work together.