Is greenwashing silencing the sustainability revolution?

Is greenwashing silencing the sustainability revolution?

ShutterstockAaron Amat

You don't need to be an economist to be familiar with the principles of the law of supply and demand. The market expands to supply more of what consumers demand; and demand can be influenced to drive it up (advertising, cutting prices) or push it down (taxes, health scares). 

Which means organizations can influence our spending behavior, be it through businesses selling things, public bodies driving healthier behavior or charities raising money. But the flipside is that we, the consumer, can influence organizations — particularly businesses  with our spending decisions. What we choose to buy affects decisions which businesses make about what they sell, how and where they sell it and at what price. If you doubt that, look to the salutary tale of jewelry shop Ratners in 1992. Its hapless owner described what it was selling as "total crap"; customers, unsurprisingly, responded by choosing not to shop there. As a result, the chain plummeted into debt and closed hundreds of shops, shedding thousands of jobs. 

There was no social media back in 1992. Now, people can jump in on Twitter or Facebook to criticize a company  potentially reaching millions of people to influence their spending decisions and change the company's ways. I wonder if Ratners might have gone down even more quickly now, with jokes and memes piling on top of the original news story? Or would Ratner have had a more rapid route to apologize, make a joke of it and dodge the bullets?

Either way, it feels right that we can more readily criticize a business when it misbehaves  and healthy that social media extends the reach, perhaps adding some balance back into the advertising equation. Who is to say how people concerned about climate change act when booking a holiday, for example? At WWF, we'd hope they start by checking out a lower-carbon option than flying. But if they are flying, how might they choose between Easyjet, which has improved flight efficiency to cut emissions, and Ryanair, the biggest single aviation greenhouse gas emitter in Europe, whose CEO recently labeled climate change as rubbish?

That's the point: that decision between different types of behavior in similar companies. I think this should work as strongly for good behavior, too; that we can decide to support a company based on its doing the right thing. I'd like us to celebrate the companies that are taking their responsibilities seriously — those who are taking action to tackle climate change, for example.

Businesses that trumpet their environmental credentials are often accused of greenwash. Rightly, organizations such as WWF have to show that when we collaborate with a company that isn't getting everything right, it's because we believe we can change how it works to become better. But there may be another phenomenon too, maybe a backlash to greenwash: that of "green hush." If a company fears the accusation of greenwash or thinks customers won't care about its attitude to climate change or the natural environment, then why would it shout about it?

Take Tesco, for example. It's the U.K.'s biggest retailer, by quite some distance, and being a food and fuel business with a large distribution network, it is also one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses in the U.K., outside of energy intensive industries such as steel, paper or plastics. So I think it's great that it's in the vanguard in its sector in signing up to a science-based climate change target — a commitment to reduce emissions from its own operations to a level commensurate with its contribution to keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. 

What's more, it's doing this by committing to sourcing 100 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030; more than half of which will come from power purchase agreements with renewable generators, and from Tesco's own on-site generation. The company could go further, of course — more commitment to on-site renewables, say, and we shouldn't let it forget the impact of being a huge retailer of petrol and diesel. But this is a significant commitment for the good.

So why not celebrate it? The commitment itself is public on RE100's website. But Tesco has yet to make any public announcement to draw attention to it. Why not? Why wouldn't the company demonstrate to its customers that it is taking its responsibility seriously as a huge emitter of greenhouse gasses? Presumably, the answer is that it does not think that its customers will care.

Well, I'm a Tesco customer and I care. I'm also an H&M customer, and I stay one because I value its work with WWF to improve the sustainability of its clothes by managing water use better and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. I'm happy to be a Sky customer because it works to protect forests, it's raising the profile of plastic waste, and because it has great customer service. And I endure the occasional busy Saturday morning in the Croydon Ikea in part because it takes seriously that its wood and cotton is sustainably sourced. I do want to be a Whiskas customer — because of the great work it does with us to raise money to protect tigers — but as anyone with cats knows, cats make the decisions about which brand you buy.

I want to celebrate the companies who do the right thing. The ones who work with scientists, conservationists and other experts to source responsibly, minimize their impact on the natural world, raise money to protect species, cut their greenhouse gas emissions and innovate to show others how it's done. When it's real action, and real impact — not greenwash — let's end the green hush. If they shout about it, they encourage others. But also, people care about wildlife and nature, and worry about climate change — so I think companies who shout about it might also find that customers welcome it. 

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