There is little consensus about what exactly it means to be a greenwasher. According to Sourcewatch, it is the … “unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue…”. Others have said it is the corporate effort to display itself as environmentally responsible in order to mask wrongdoing. Still others attribute it to misleading marketing through false or exaggerated product claims.
Since a true consensus for a definition of greenwashing does not exist, it is then up to each individual to qualify corporate actions as either green or washed out. Each person must decide whether to support the company’s seemingly sustainable efforts or call them out for not going the distance.
Someone recently asked me how I distinguished between a greenwasher and a truly responsible firm. It was easy enough to answer. If the green and socially focused efforts affect core business operations and translate across all staff and business units, then CSR is in the air. If the green or sustainable initiatives are on the peripheral, side items only and not the main dish, greenwashing is likely. For instance, if a large multi-national firm such as Clorox, buys a reputable green business, such as Burt’s Bees, greenwash is possible if Clorox does not learn from its acquisition and strive to green the entirety of its operations. And, by entirety I do not just mean marketing greener products. I mean reducing footprint, working with suppliers, minimizing waste and so on. Readers can judge for themselves if Clorox has taken a holistically sustainable approach.
Given that I have firmed up my own definition of greenwashing, I have been thinking about some of my earlier posts. I have always been a champion for any sign of social responsibility from a company, in the hopes that supporting such actions would push corporations even further down the CSR road. I maintain that we should offer such support, at least for a while. But, if companies do not step it up and make sustainability the main course and not the appetizer, then we are obligated, as consumers and concerned citizens, to call them out. As such, I ask you Frito-Lay, when do I get organic chips and why aren’t ALL your chip bags loud and biodegradable. If it is good enough for Sun Chips why not for all of your products?
Which brings us to the second easy way to spot a greenwasher: lack of transparency. Transparency is the cardinal rule and guiding principle for a truly responsible company. Classmates and I discussed this recently at the Global Reporting Initiative training where we learned the rules for putting together the best of sustainability reports. These glossy reports, fully of pretty pictures and impressive stats on energy saved and water conserved, should also outline risks and mistakes. Plans for correction and mitigation should be included. Consumers care more about honesty than perfection.
No matter the complexity of the definition, a greenwasher can be distinguished from a responsible firm by transparency and depth. If green waters run deep and honesty and disclosure are part of the company’s actual mission, then there is genuine effort. If CSR responsibility belongs to marketing and is focused on a product here and there then look out. They just want to sell you something.