Getting Rid of Greenwash

Getting Rid of Greenwash

When Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender reflects on 2007, one event stands out because of what he considers the company's greatest failure that year.

A public interest nonprofit released a study implicating the company for using a carcinogenic compound in its dish liquid. Although Seventh Generation had spent years working with its suppliers to eliminate the compound and had reduced it to increasingly lower levels, it never told consumers or stakeholder about its efforts.

"If we had done that and we had been completely transparent about that particular situation, there would have been no story because we would have already communicated that," Hollender said Thursday. "It was a painful lesson to learn. And the fact that we did it right 99 percent of the time doesn't mean that you don't pay the price for the one time you did it wrong."

Hollender joined a group of business leaders last week to talk about transparency and the state of green advertising at a time when charges of greenwash are on the rise and the corporate community is feeling gun-shy over when they should communicate their efforts to walk the green walk. Executive Editor Joel Makower moderated the panel discussion, held during the annual Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference in New York last week, and posed the question: How good do companies have to be before they can start a dialogue with the marketplace, even when their efforts can still be considered a work in progress?

"When we think about how we're doing from a sustainability perspective, the answer is lousy," Hollender said. "To be completely honest, when we look at our company, despite the many wonderful things we could talk about, what concerns me the most is almost all of our energy goes into being less bad than other people, rather than being truly good."

Hollender advocated the need for brutal honesty with consumers and stakeholders, even if companies believe they won't care about the information.

Companies must also manage expectations of stakeholders and consumers, keep an open dialogue and try to give them the information they want. For example, Starbucks analyzed its carbon footprint, learned that energy use is responsible for its largest impacts and committed to sourcing a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources, according to Colleen Chapman, a panelist and director of external affairs at the company.

"Actually, we recently doubled our commitment to 50 percent by 2010 but what you'll hear from customers is 'Well, I saw that barista put that milk jug in the trash. Why didn't it go into the recycling bin?'" Chapman said. "I don't know how familiar you are with the complexities of recycling at the municipal level but it's a pretty sticky wicket. At the end of the day, the impact we have on electricity and energy use is so much greater that what we have on recycling, but what the customer sees is recycling."

Context is another tool to help prevent the g-word from entering the conversation. "Green communication is only as good as the context in which it's presented," Makower said.

That goes back to transparency. "If you want to talk about what you're doing good, you've got to be willing to talk about what you're also not doing good," Hollender said. "It's just that simple."

Lucy Shea of Futerra Sustainability Communications was on hand to offer some advice to companies to avoid the greenwash trap. Futerra is working with BSR on a greenwash guide for the U.S. market that examines the top 10 signs of greenwash based on interviews, codes and international guidance.

Here's a preview of the top five signs:

1. Fluffy language, such as words or terms with no clear meaning
2. Green products vs. dirty company, such as efficient light bulbs made in a polluting factory
3. Suggestive pictures, including green images suggesting a (un-justified) green impact, such as flowers blooming from exhaust pipes
4. Irrelevant claims, such as emphasizing a small green attribute when the rest isn't green
5. Best in class, but the rest of the class stinks

The report is scheduled for publication in early 2009. Stay tuned.