Beyond painting your factory or your products in green color

In our previous post, we mentioned two corporate sustainability initiatives (one from IKEA and another from Google). It is true that these two companies are somehow unique cases, without easy extrapolation to other industrial sectors related with the “traditional manufacturing”. However, these two keep being good examples of the current emerging trends regarding environmental concerns.

In an increasingly globalized and competitive world, the concerns of citizens about environmental issues are not always considered with the required priority by lawmakers.

Luckily, consumers begin to ask companies a greater commitment to the environment.

More consumers reject the most polluting products, and even, some of them are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly goods and services. In this new scenario, companies are worrying for showing to the community that they are as “green” as possible. However it does not always correspond to reality, and the so called “greenwashing” occurs.

Wikipedia defines greenwashing as a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.

Evidence that an organization is greenwashing often comes from pointing out the spending differences: when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being “green”, than is actually spent on environmentally sound practices.

Ok, so this is another type of misleading advertising, why this type represents a bigger problem?

Seems like anything and everything has “gone green” these days. Airlines, car companies, retailers, restaurants… Thankfully, more often than not, that’s a good thing. It’s only bad if it’s greenwashing — that’s bad for the environment, consumers, and, ultimately, for the very businesses doing the greenwashing.

  • Environment: At its very worst, greenwashing is bad for the environment because it can encourage masses of consumers to do the opposite of what’s good for the environment. At its most benign, greenwashing makes claims that are neither good nor bad for the environment — it’s just making green claims to sell more stuff.
  • Consumers: Nobody likes to be taken advantage of, especially when it comes to money. The last thing consumers want to do is to spend extra money on a product or service they believe is doing right for the environment, but in reality is not — or not as much as the ad might lead them to believe.
  • Businesses: Smart businesses are finding out that doing right for the environment actually does increase profitability in many cases. With so many easy ways for businesses to reduce their environmental impact or improve their products and processes, it’s just sad when they don’t. It’s even worse when they don’t make changes and claim to be a green company. Once properly informed and trained, consumers become able to distinguish honest companies from cheater ones. Sooner or later, the practice of greenwashing will explode in their hands, therefore, destroying the reputation of the company and consequently also their sales.

Ok, problem understood, what can we do to eradicate this practice?

In 2008, the Oregon University launched the GREENWASHING INDEX, where everyone who wishes can send and evaluate ads claiming friendly environmental properties. Users then, evaluate –with the corresponding justification- the truthfulness of the ads on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 means Authentic and 5 means Bogus.

In the same year, the British association Carbon Trust, launched its certification program Carbon Trust Standard, that includes protocols for measuring the real reductions of the companies’ environmental impact and therefore prevents greenwashing practices.

In Spain, currently there are not similar initiatives. Some companies are voluntarily making Environmental Product Declarations, (EPD) of their goods and services based on the ISO 14025 standard. This regulation requires certified methodologies and the publication of the obtained results and therefore making a real environmental transparency exercise. Unfortunately, the number of products or services covered by this certification is merely a token.

In Spain, as citizens-consumers and regarding our options to change the world, it seems we are not yet aware than our wallets are more powerful than our votes.

Other possible example or indicator of this awareness difference is the direct comparison of the effect that the “Dieselgate” has produced on the sales of Volkswagen vehicles in Spain and the United Kingdom.

And you, do you know any greenwashing case? How much more would you accept to pay for a more environmentally friendly product or service?

Francisco Morentin
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