‘Greenwashing’ is the act of portraying your business as being more ethical, and more socially and environmentally responsible than it really is.
And it’s a big reputational no-no.
In a world where brands need to constantly evolve their marketing strategies in order to stand out from their rivals and stay ‘on trend’, it’s easy to see why some companies might be tempted to engage in greenwashing.
However, as countless companies have found over the years, any boost to your reputation can be short lived if you get found out.
The recent Volkswagen emissions scandal probably provides the most contemporary and egregious example of corporate greenwashing; for years, the company has promoted its diesel cars as being more environmentally benign than their petrol equivalents, whilst deliberately cheating emissions tests. It lied to customers and regulators, and it purposefully broke the law.
Volkswagen’s behaviour serves as an illustration of the more extreme attempts at green image manipulation, but there are lots of other greenwashing sins that businesses need to avoid.
What to avoid
There’s a long list of actions and behaviours that could be considered to be greenwashing, and it’s a spectrum, with some actions and behaviours being less offensive than others, but you should try to avoid them all.
Here’s a (non-exhaustive) summary:
Using warm-and-fuzzy, but essentially meaningless language like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘pure’, ‘green’ and ‘natural’.
Placing undue emphasis on one marginally more benign element of a product or process to mask the fact that the rest is actually pretty bad.
Achieving ISO14001 certification just for the sake of wearing a shiny badge.
Making unsupported claims for which there is no independent verification.
Promoting products and services based only on statements of intent like “we’re working toward a greener future”.
Deliberately misleading people with suggestive imagery, like a factory chimney emitting flowers.
Bamboozling people with ‘science’ to confuse and/or give credibility to claims.
Another common greenwashing tactic sees businesses engage in all sorts of corporate philanthropy with the sole purpose of generating positive media attention. There’s absolutely no reason why companies that are making genuine efforts to do business responsibly shouldn’t bask in their own glory, but if that’s the only reason you’re doing it, people will see through it eventually.
Try as it might, there is a distinct possibility that Volkswagen will never recover from the reputational damage it has inflicted on itself, although only time will tell. It’s lost over a third of its stock market value since the emissions scandal broke, and has since reported a â‚¬3.48bn quarterly operating loss – its biggest in around 15 years.
Fashion companies, such as H&M, GAP and TJ Maxx also regularly come in for criticism, especially over human rights abuses and poor working conditions in the their supply chains. Greenpeace has also targeted them over residues of dangerous chemicals on clothes.
Then there’s Starbucks. In 2012, it was found to be channeling profits overseas from its UK operations in order to avoid corporation tax. Customers threatened a boycott, Members of Parliament accused the company of being immoral (it emerged it has paid corporation tax in the UK only once since it opened its first store here in 1998) and yet, all the while, it continued to trumpet it’s CSR credentials.
But that sort of reputational harm isn’t the only damage that greenwashing causes. It can make the public sceptical of the motives of genuinely well intentioned businesses when they’re trying to make a positive difference in the communities where they’re based. And that’s a real shame, because companies are every bit a part of society as people.