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Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Greenwashing always backfires in the end

Credit: newclearvision.com

This blog often comments on developments in sustainability communications and there have been a number of interesting developments recently.

In principle, we all agree that Sustainability Reporting combines information about an organisation’s economic, environmental and social performance.  It gets more tricky when we try to agree on the definition of terms and come to a consensus on reporting standards.  GRI standards are treated as the norm in industry but until now, no governmental or EU standards are in place.
Whether you see it as a blessing or a curse, there are as many ways of measuring an organisation’s commitment to sustainability as there are organisations undertaking sustainability reporting.  There are a wide variety of ratings and standards, largely due to the fact that organisations have different reasons for choosing to report.  While they all say their motivation is to ‘communicate transparency and accountability’, producing a sustainability report does not automatically show ‘transparency and accountability’. 

Many of the first environmental reports published in the late 1980s were done by companies in the chemical industry with serious image problems.  Just this week, oekom research published the results of its latest industry rating on chemical companies, concluding that they have thus far fulfilled their commitments to sustainability “only in piecemeal fashion.”

Time and again we’re seeing that greenwashing completely backfires on companies.  The results of a consumer survey published by the Serviceplan Group recently shows that businesses are suffering damage to their sustainability profile because of the few who go overboard with greenwash.  Businesses need a new communications strategy, one that distances them from greenwashing and concentrates on “providing reliable information to consumers,” says Florian Haller, managing director of Serviceplan Group.  

We agree wholeheartedly that responsible PR and advertising agencies like Sustainability Consult have a central role to play.  They can only fulfil this role if they have access to the information they need, whether it deals with climate protection, biodiversity, fair trade or any number of sustainability issues.

A more positive development this week is the publication of research by the online Environmental Data Interactive Exchange (Edie), indicating that big businesses are beginning to give priority to sustainability.  The report, available for download here, set out to discover what kinds of targets businesses are setting in terms of mitigating the perceived risks of climate change and exploiting potential opportunities.  Examining case studies from UK companies such as Virgin Media, Lloyds TSB and Wembley Stadium, the report concluded that leading businesses are placing sustainability at the core of their business strategies because they no longer anticipate that the future is ‘green and lean’ – rather they are banking on it being ‘green and growing’.

Blog by Neil Bradley


  1. Interesting post. I think like many aspects of life, there can always be "too much of a good thing" so to speak. Consumers are not stupid, and if they suspect that greenwashing is occurring, they will tune out the company's message rather quickly. From a personal perspective, if I read one more advert on big oil companies' "concern for the planet" and the like I will pull my remaining hair out.

  2. Hi Green World, I think you're right. There needs to be a balance and we feel that sustainability communications has moved away from the so-called green marketing of the 80s and 90s and to a more credible place. Of course, that's when companies (and agencies) get it right.

    If you're interested in these topics, you might like to follow us on twitter @sustconsult or come and hang out with us on Facebook!