sustainable business

The best way to avoid greenwashing charges: act right

Sandra Stewart | April 9, 2015

One issue that emerged in comments about Walmart’s new Sustainability Leaders program is that people have different definitions of greenwashing. One I thing we can all agree on: if you’re talking sustainability and walking in the opposite direction, you’re greenwashing.

Sometimes companies do this cynically: an important Union of Concerned Scientists report, A Climate of Corporate Control: How Corporations Have Influenced the U.S. Dialogue on Climate Science and Policy, called out corporations in 2012 for twisting science, spreading misinformation and using their influence to oppose climate change policy—even as they boasted about LEED-certified buildings, carbon reductions in their supply chains and renewable energy initiatives. (Get the report here.)

Most of the 28 companies in the study were energy and petroleum companies and utilities; only eight were in other industries. That’s obviously not a representative sample. Still, they’re far from the only ones to get caught promoting sustainability efforts while working against needed public policies or violating basic sustainability principles in other areas of their business. More recently, certain fashion brands have come under fire for promoting “ecoconscious” clothing lines while their suppliers continue to pay sweatshop wages (people, after all, are part of the triple bottom line).

Even companies with high ethical standards and the best intentions get in trouble when they promote their ambitions rather than their accomplishments. The lesson is simple: don’t let the talk get ahead of the walk.

Stay on the right side of the line by following these rules:

  • Act first. You won’t get precipitously out in front with your marketing.
  • Consider scale. How meaningful are your sustainability efforts in the context of your business?
  • Consider commitment. Is the whole company on board or is sustainability an island?

And if you’re pursuing one greenish initiative while the rest of the business is oblivious to sustainability, you’re not ready to talk about being green.

For more about how to successfully tell your sustainability story, see our guide, 9 Ways to Promote Sustainability without Greenwashing.

  1. […] Employee evangelism Sustainable businesses have always placed high value on communicating their purpose and having employees live it—and more and more businesses that wouldn’t define themselves as sustainable are seeing the light. But merely larding the employee handbook with lists of “our values” and posting corporate mission statements is not going to give workers pride of place. To really engage employees—and get them talking with customers, friends, everyone about how great the company is—businesses need a story that expresses those values naturally, in a way that engages employees’ own values and feels true. (That means the company’s actions need to square up with its story—see this post.) […]


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