Greenwashing (cont.) and the Need to Loosen Up

 

Jeffrey Hollender, the founder, CEO at Seventh Generation, published a counterpoint to my recent post, How Bad Is Greenwashing, Really? I encourage you to read it here.

I just responded on his site, and thought I'd share the conversation here. To wit:

Jeffrey,

Thanks for your comment. I've long admired your outspokenness on the topic of the green marketplace, and your willingness to be, as you describe yourself, an inspired protagonist.

I don't disagree with some of your points, but I think you missed mine. It wasn't about companies that can't handle criticism. And it wasn't about condoning companies that are being misleading or dishonest. As you well know, I have been an outspoken critic of greenwashing myself over the past twenty years.

But there is a tremendous amount of green activity going on in the world of business that doesn't fall into either category, and it deserves more than a little consideration and a knee-jerk response.

Nearly every big company these days is taking a hard look at its products, processes, and operations through the lens of environmental impacts, and many are making changes that reduce their impacts significantly, even though the changes may represent a small, even tiny, part of their operations. They are doing these things for a range of reasons — to cut costs, increase sales, attract and retain employees, reduce risks, and improve their reputations, among other reasons. Frankly, their motivations are unimportant, as far as I'm concerned. What's important is that they are engaged as never before.

The challenge most big companies face is how to make gradual changes without being pilloried for not being "good enough." Incrementally, after all, is how big companies change. Smaller, privately held firms like Seventh Generation can move much more quickly and boldly, especially when they have leaders as enlightened as you. But unfortunately, such companies are few and far between. The overwhelming majority of companies, especially big public ones, move much more slowly. Nonetheless, many are moving in a green direction, making changes both big and small. Yet I'm not aware of a single one that claims to be green.

Let's look at two of the examples you cite.

  • General Motors has created a promising technology that it plans to introduce in 2010. It is widely anticipated by most environmentalists and transportation experts as a viable and attractive solution to reducing the use of oil. GM is currently scrambling to unload its gas guzzlers and is working on selling its Hummer division. The company executives I've talked to are simultaneously humbled and hopeful about their future and are changing direction. I can assure you that no one at GM, from their chairman down, has claimed that they are green, or even close.
  • I checked the website of Procter & Gamble's Pure Essentials and didn't see any green claims. Yes, calling it "natural" is dubious at best, but it's hardly hardcore greenwash. Meanwhile, P&G has set a goal of selling $20 billion in sales of products with what it calls a "significantly reduced environmental footprint version of previous alternative products." (More on that here.) This may not fit your standard of "good enough," but it's hardly disingenuous.

    Now, I'm not for a second claiming that either company is "green" — or even "good." Both have a long, long way to go, in my book. But both represent sea changes for companies with mega-billion-dollar worldwide impact. And my sense is that it is just the beginning, not the end, of their efforts in this regard.

    (Full disclosure: GM is a client of GreenOrder, a sustainability strategy firm with which I am affiliated; I have no business relationship with P&G.)

    It's not just GM and P&G, of course. There are dozens of other big companies trying to navigate similar paths — making changes while maintaining their market share and brand images, and doing it under the watchful eye of Wall Street, which has been anything but supportive of these efforts.

    So, how should we view these companies? As polluting scam artists who should be scolded for deigning to talk about their efforts? Or as companies trying to shift directions, even if it's slower and more incremental than most of us would like? Do we beat them up or cheer them on?

    I vote for the latter — always, of course, remaining watchful to make sure that their rhetoric doesn't get too far ahead of reality. In short, I think you — all of us — should loosen up a bit and give these companies some room to move — some rope on which to hang themselves, if you prefer. Transparency, as you point out, is key. I couldn't agree more.

    Yes, there are more than a few companies that just don't get it — that are trying to put green lipstick on a pig by making environmental marketing claims that far outweigh the size of their efforts. (This includes many smaller companies, who all too frequently claim that we can "save the earth" by buying their organic socks, hemp soaps, or whatever. They're all good people making quality products, but their green marketing claims are sometimes outlandish, to say the least.) But for every company that doesn't get it, there are many more that are moving forward, however imperfectly. To dismiss every big company effort and statement as a "corporate disinformation campaign" needlessly tars both the leaders and the laggards with the same brush — and insults every earnest environmental professional in those companies who are trying — often against significant odds — to move the needle inside his or her company.

    Like you, I'm concerned about the pace of change. I wish it were faster, and we need to keep the heat on companies to take bolder, more audacious actions. This is no time to celebrate small, symbolic measures.

    But like it or not, we can't make the societal changes we need without the big guys. Seventh Generation is an admirable company, a true leader, but it alone can't address the significant environmental challenges we face. If the world's largest companies don't join in — well, your two decades of leadership will be all for naught.

    Finally, since you brought it up — gratuitously, I might add — let me raise the Clorox issue, about which you've criticized me privately several times over the past few months. But since you've raised it publicly, I feel compelled to respond in kind. I did a small consulting project for Clorox for three months during 2007, acting as a sounding board for their outreach efforts in the run-up to the release of their Green Works cleaning line. My engagement, as I understood it, was to ensure that their messages were authentic and wouldn't overreach. I have done no work for them for nearly a year, and have disclosed my brief involvement with them whenever I've written about them.

    If you'd like, I'd be happy to reveal to you offline the exact amount of money I received for these efforts, but to put it in perspective, it's a small fraction of the amount of money Seventh Generation paid me during the 1990s, when you were licensing a version of my green consumer newsletter.

    Were all the laudatory things I wrote over the years about you and Seventh Generation (or were quoted as saying in the press) genuine, or just a symptom of my "clouded judgment"? You make the call.

    Respectfully,

    Joel