Difficult to uncover, lacking adequate disclosure, regulation and enforcement mechanisms and offering high rates of return now that climate change and environmental degradation are high up on the political agenda, corporate “greenwash” threatens the real and honest efforts of all those taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, mitigate climate change and minimize environmental destruction.
Discouraging greenwash and rejecting a “perception is reality” mentality is vital if industry and commerce are to avoid provoking general public cynicism and backlash, note industry executives and academic researchers such as IBM’s Maureen J. Baird and United Nations University’s Ruediger Kuehr. The challenges are especially great, and pressing, in an age of instantaneous digital media communications and a growing, globally interconnected economic system of increasing technological and organizational complexity.
Progress on this front is being made, however. The initiative of growing numbers of top industry executives to address energy and environmental issues both inside their organizations and through international and intra-industry agencies, including participating in public and private carbon and greenhouse gas reporting and disclosure initiatives such as the United Nations’ StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem) program and the Carbon Disclosure Project, are concrete steps that move us toward a global emissions regulatory system that includes adequate checks and balances.
A Two-Edged Sword
There’s no doubt greenwash is being practiced or that it’s value is increasing. Just how prevalent it is is difficult to determine, however. “I suspect that greenwashing pays off economically these days as environmental issues have succeeded in moving back into the consumers’ interest. We have not done any specific work on this topic yet. One reason for this is certainly the problem of providing the necessary evidences as it would be necessary from a scientific point-of-view,” UNU’s Ruediger Kuehr, the author of the 2004 book Computers and the Environment, told Triple Pundit.
Greenwash is only at an early stage of development in the global electronics industry, “but becoming more important since environmental groups are publicly campaigning against OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) and hence questioning the image of a rather clean industry,” Kuehr pointed out.
Greenwashing’s benefits are likely to be short-lived and counter-productive, added Maureen J. Baird, IBM South Africa’s business development, winback and solutions executive. “The benefits to those practicing it will obviously be mainly of a PR nature, and short-lived. The truth is, this tendency may backfire badly should they be found to be greenwashing by authorities or even clients – and this can have a long lasting negative impact on their reputation and credibility.”
The fervency of environmental, anti-consumerist activists and the heightened emotions and divisiveness green issues and actions can engender is also leading to some “interesting alliances between environmental groups and industry, which must be seen in some cases also as greenwashing behind the scenes. For the time-being it pays off for the two,” Kuehr added.
Though environmental NGOs, investigative journalists and the media are at the forefront of unmasking corporate greenwash, it is less clear just who is best able and equipped to do so from an institutional regulatory perspective. More fundamentally, uncertainty and debate over just what practices are really “green” and which aren’t further clouds the issue.
Taking a holistic life-cycle perspective and determining the degree to which the “green” version of a product differs from its previous version is the main method that should be used to determine just how green a product is, according to UNU’s Kuehr.
“But,” he noted, “the enormous limitation of accessible data restricts such an analysis. Hence, there is hardly anybody easily in the position to unmask [greenwash], because it goes without saying that he or she will not receive the endorsement of the companies under investigation… Some are not taking the necessary holistic life-cycle perspective simply also because it is too complex. But without such, the findings can be misleading.”
All this makes nascent efforts to establish global emissions reporting and disclosure standards all the more important. “If those really going for green unify and endorse a relatively neutral initiative, which StEP for example is, they could set benchmarks for a good environmental performance and through this unmask the greenwashers,” Kuehr maintained.
“Gradually one expects more countries to pass legislation and establish regulations to guide and monitor adherence to environmental protection policies. Only then will we hope to have a whole, above-board practice around green issues,” IBM’s Baird believes. “At the moment, especially in developing markets, industries are very much self-regulating and players, except where they involve independent vendors, may not be keen to subject themselves to scrutiny.
“The underlying principle is that all of us have room to improve our practices to ensure that we protect the environment. There will always be some contestation of ideas around the pace and approach to being green between industries and environmental activists – the important thing is to ensure that these remain constructive to the great task ahead,” she continued.
“To restrict myself to the IT industry – it’s definitely very possible to be green. Looking at data centers, for example, we can save a lot of energy by using latest, intelligent technologies that not only save space, reduce heat output but ensure the efficient use of power, reduce carbon emissions and increase productivity.”
Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility
Standards aimed at countering greenwash are increasingly being put into place by industry and government, particularly in the developed world, according to Baird. Moreover, energy usage and efficiency, climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reduction are moving beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and becoming a “business imperative.”
“Being green has implications on the financials of an organization – especially for those organizations which are heavy energy users with multiple data centers. By deploying energy-efficient data systems, they not only save costs, but also meet their green targets and move in- line with governance requirements.”
Europeans in particular are making “great strides,” Baird pointed out. “Gartner is forecasting that by the end of 2008, at least 50% of medium-sized and large IT organizations in Europe will declare a green imperative as a result of financial, legislative, risk-related and environmental pressures. But less than 20% of organizations outside Europe will do the same. They also say that during the same period, green criteria will be among the top six buying criteria of more than 40% of European IT organizations.”
Though there is a growing movement in the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) sector to go green, “it has to be proven whether this development is sustainable or only a short-term reaction to the present environmental movement,” Kuehr cautioned. “It has yet to be analyzed whether consumers are demanding more for ‚Äògreen’ ICT products over the past years.”
Furthermore, Kuehr noted that there’s no getting around the fact that computer and electronic equipment, automobiles and other necessities of modern life “will remain high-tech products, manufactured and assembled in global supply chains out of many elements, components and resources.
“Hence, the term ‚Äògreen’ will always be misleading.” That said, “the closer they come to the utopian target Zero Emissions/Zero Waste throughout the entire life-cycle, the greener they will be. And here strong competition about the progress made under neutral assessment would help to green the industry and its products.”