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Greenwashing: when green is the colour of money, not of nature

Greenwashing is a misleading business practice in which a company (or perhaps a person, a body or an institution...) presents itself as being environmentally friendly or committed to sustainability, but is actually not. It does not in fact pursue valid sustainable practices and ultimately contributes to environmental damage with its deceptive behaviour.

We wanted to talk about this because greenwashing is as widespread as it is dangerous also in our industry. Talking about it is a good way to defend ourselves and steer clear of this practice. It has nothing to do with protecting the environment and merely serves to benefit those who use it: it enhances their reputation, attracts environmentally concerned customers and creates business opportunities for profit.
Greenwashing: when green is the colour of money, not of nature

A word from the expert: Giovanni Chiarella, Founder of Futurevox

We wanted to air the issue openly and to provide useful information, without resorting to accusations or moralising. So we asked for help from Giovanni Chiarella, a social entrepreneur who specialises in the environment. Chiarella is the founder of a digital agency (Futurevox) that develops communications strategies for social, political and environmental causes. He mounts Europe-wide campaigns that involve developing activist communities and helping non-profits, political movements and ethical enterprises to increase their supporters, donors and clients. Chiarella and his agency stands with those who do the exact opposite of greenwashing and, on the practical outcome of these projects, bases his promotion and visibility activities.

We asked Giovanni Chiarella for some tips on how to recognise greenwashing and avoid getting taken in by it, and also how not to be seduced by practices that are apparently laudable but are actually superficial and harmful.

Giovanni:There is a lot of talk about greenwashing but it’s not very effective and often consists only of pointing the finger. It’s on everyone's lips because it’s a widespread, entrenched and systemic communications strategy. Greenwashing starts with big business, where procedures, standards and laws are decided on with often questionable criteria and a lack of straight talking; everything is shrouded with a veneer of “sustainability”. Then we get down the smaller companies: when they see how widespread this practice is, and they have few qualms about doing the same, since “everybody's doing it”. The result is that we find so many companies who wear this green cloak but are as black as oil’ underneath.
Why lie? Is it really so important to appear to be sustainable even if you aren’t?
G: Yes. In its current state, the environment requires real commitment and companies need to be incentivised to become more sustainable in order to access finance, say. Then there’s the whole question of image. The public is now sensitive to green issues and people’s buying decisions reward sustainable companies. The thing is that people don’t always have the tools and skills to figure out who is really green.”

So how do we recognise greenwashing? Are there any red flags to watch out for?
G: “It’s not easy precisely because there are many interests at stake: sustainability gives companies access to funds and higher profits. There are companies that have become very skilled at dressing up green: they have entire teams that hide unethical behaviour in order to appear greener. I my own work, have come across companies that look sustainable and very convincing, but manage to hide their less than virtuous behaviour very well, under squeaky-clean sustainability budgets.”
Greenwashing: when green is the colour of money, not of nature

5 tips for recognising greenwashing

1. Don’t accept simple answers to complex problems
G: “My advice would be to bear in mind the complexity of this issue: don’t accept simple answers to complex problems. This is a complex matter and must be treated as such.”
It is important to remember that we’re not just dealing with isolated cases, but widespread practices. This doesn’t mean anyone should be exonerated, but it helps to remember that behind a single greenwashing action, there are probably a whole series of fake entities and procedures.
2. Dig deeper: carefully examine and find out what services are actually offered by companies
G: “When we come across a sustainability message or advertisement praising a company's green initiatives, a very simple thing we can do is to find out what products or services it offers. A look at its website should explain the type of service offered or products marketed and how much actual sustainability there may be”.
This kind of approach helps us to distinguish between the communication campaigns and the real nature of the companies; we can see more clearly the principles and values underlying their intentions.

3. Zero impact doesn’t exist, especially in industry
G: “Any action performed by man always has an impact on the environment, even more so in the case of industry. For example, think of the early days when coal was burned without any concern whatsoever. The main thing is that, to have a little less impact, you can choose certain actions rather than others. So we can ask ourselves: what choices have been made? What criteria govern a company’s actions? What are an action’s real consequences on the environment and what are the gains deriving from it?”.

Thinking like this we can, for example, be suspicious of firms who claim to be 100% green: they are clearly hiding something.

4. Sustainability is not only environmental but also social
G: Sustainability is not just about the environment. There is also an aspect of it that concerns social sustainability, which is equally important. In fact, one of the greatest kinds of damage caused by climate change is social inequality. It is the poorest and most disadvantaged populations that are the first to pay the price for droughts, deforestation, rising temperatures, etc…”.

This line of thought gives us another way in to understanding whether an organisation is truly sustainable. If, for example, a company advertises its commitment to planting trees in the city outskirts, but its employees are not paid fairly and live precariously, then the fact of planting a few trees is greenwashing, plain and simple. It does not represent a genuine ethical commitment to the environment (broadly understood as the social and “biological” network that the firm exists in).

5. A history of commitment to sustainability points to credibility
Another useful clue for navigating the sea of greenwashing is the history of the firm’s commitment to sustainability. The more stable and lasting a company’s commitment to sustainability is, the more likely it is that it is actually a real, keystone value.
G: “Real and lasting commitment over time pays off, also as an economic return. Greenwashing turns out the same way as lies: they offer a return only in the short term but lost their way in the long run. Only the companies that have proven their honesty without cutting corners will have a voice”.