Whether Glasgow’s climate summit is deemed a success or failure, it has certainly introduced a few new terms to our every-day vocabulary. One of the more prominent being “greenwashing”.

For the benefit of some of my readers whose first language is something other than English and who may therefore not quite understand the nuance of language, the word “greenwashing” is a play on the term “whitewashing”, used to describe a situation where something unsightly is painted white to give the impression that it nicer or cleaner than reality. So, the term “greenwashing” is being applied to businesses that use spin to disguise their lack of green credentials.

It’s a practice adopted by more companies than you may realise, maybe even the majority. It can be either unintentional or just because they would rather pretend than take the necessary action and all too often it leads to cynical exploitation.

It’s pretty clear that carbon emissions are becoming significant in our choice of those we do business with. Futerra’s survey in the US and UK, as long as two years ago, confirmed that 88% of us want the companies we buy from to be more environmentally friendly. In Australia an independent consumer survey last year revealed that 90% want sustainable products with 46% of under 30’s stating they would pay more for a sustainable product.

In a new US survey 64% of people said they would pay more for sustainably produced products and 78% say they are more likely to buy a product labeled as sustainable. The issue is real, but still businesses are failing to make the necessary changes, often preferring instead to disguise their environmental indifference. Given that they are certain to be found out, it makes no sense.

According to a 2018 BSR/Globescan survey 64% of North American respondents said sustainability needs to influence core business activities such as strategy and value creation; 84% of European respondents and 89% of respondents everywhere else agreed. So, why are fewer than a third of businesses working on sustainability strategy and why do many more continue greenwashing?

Some would like to be more responsible, but don’t know how

Actually research suggests that this is the biggest group by far and you can sympathise to some extent with these businesses. However, I can’t help but think, if they were truly committed and realise they don’t know what to do about it they would ask someone who does. That means bringing in a consultant, which admittedly is an expense, but if they achieve improvements and manage their new sustainability as they should it should more than pay for itself.

One of the problems here is the validity of some of the consultants. We know from our efforts to recruit experts in other fields that it can be a minefield. If you need advice on a subject, you probably don’t know enough about it to identify the consultants who truly know what they are talking about.

I’ve seen numerous so-called experts who are really only ticking the standard boxes,. This is OK, but has limited value and makes for a slow process, so for a latecomer to sustainable business transformation, probably not enough.  Businesses need to completely change their outlook on sustainability and that can only begin when you define your brand and start to build your brand community. Being a green business isn’t just about re-cycling your waste, which is unfortunately the best you’ll get from some consultants.

To become a genuinely sustainable business you have to re-visit every aspect of your organisation, including the purpose, design and manufacturing of your products. 

Think about it. Your business and manufacturing processes, even the products you make may be carbon neutral, but if the products or services themselves encourage or support a  non-carbon-neutral lifestyle, are you really measuring up or are you just greenwashing? Remember, your attitude to sustainability influences just about every one of your functions at every level of your organisation.

 A great example of a genuine green agenda is the UK football team Forest Green Rovers who are not just top of their league in the sport they represent, but genuinely leading the field in sustainability. Forest Green Rovers are, without a doubt, the world’s greenest football club. Their pitch is organic, they generate all their own electricity from solar and wind power, their kit is made from bamboo products they are entirely vegan and they have a plan to build the first stadium from entirely sustainable timber. Check them out at www.fgr.co.uk. No greenwashing here!

Others would like to go green, but think can’t afford it.

There’s no doubt that the level of transformation required to turn a traditional business into a carbon neutral one means some level of investment. As with any area of business transformation, if you move quickly and get it right it will have less impact on your purse because you can take it a step-at-a-time. Your ROI will be better too. For early movers transforming into a green business could have started by just transferring the basic things they did at home to the office. You can start doing hat today and you should,. However, we are some way down the line now and it’s questionable whether you’ll be able to move quickly enough to catch up.

One thing is for certain, you can’t afford not to change. Environmental issues are fast becoming a major factor in the choices people make regarding the products they buy and the suppliers, distributors and partners they will do business with. They will check too, so greenwashing simply isn’t enough.

In the new paradigm organisations that are striving to be, or to appear to be, green can’t risk being associated with businesses that aren’t known to be pursuing a green agenda. This is all to do with basic brand #101 — “people judge you by the company you keep”. That’s why Yorkshire Cricket Club lost it’s sponsors when it was suggested they had a problem with racism and it’s why all six brand stakeholder sectors — investors, suppliers, partners, distributors, customers and employees — will run for the hills at any hint of your business being gung-ho about carbon emissions.  Therefore, the sooner you start your green transformation the less it will cost and the greater impact it will have on your success.

Some are in denial

Believe it or not, there are still people around who don’t believe climate change is real and see the movement as a fashion they can wear without really committing or just ride out.

They realise, of course, that the green issue is important to some people, but they feel they’ll “get over it” and tinker around with a few quick, cheap things that give the impression of their good intentions without really committing. This is classic greenwashing.

There isn’t really an answer to this, nor any way of justifying it. Senior executives who preside over such a culture will very soon be in a panic, struggling desperately to breathe life into the corpse of their business and maybe that’s what they deserve. However, it’s not fair on employees who, understandably, are looking to their leaders to lead in some direction other than down a black hole!

Happily businesses like these are becoming less common, but having started their transformation later than they could have done their challenge is greater. It will be more painful and far more expensive. In addition, being late to the party also means their organisations are less likely to have the knowledge and experience they need to move quickly. The failure rate is far higher among businesses that have started late.

Then there are the scammers 

It may be a sad reflection on society, but there are people who see the entire green agenda as an opportunity to exploit.  This is greenwashing in the extreme.

They do this by pretending to be playing their part and thereby encouraging people to whom these things matter (which is fast becoming the majority) to join their brand community, buy their products, invest in them or become a distributor.

What they don’t realise is that, in the digital world, there is no hiding place for cheats. Anyone making false claims or being inauthentic will be found out. There’s just too much information in the public domain and, sooner or later, someone, somewhere will join the dots and reveal a sham. 

You have to walk the talk and being found out in this is far more than an “oops! moment”. People hate nothing more than dishonesty and word will quickly spread. Customers, distributors, partners, suppliers and distributers will desert your brand community, employees will disengage, recruitment will prove difficult. Being revealed as a cheat will be terminal for most businesses.

So, how should you tackle this?

Sustainability isn’t a promotional tool. If you are a responsible, Brand-Led Business it will be ingrained in your culture. You can’t simply paint over the cracks in your ethics, build a false façade or act out a fantacy.  There is no alternative, but to start at the beginning, and that is with your brand model.

Perhaps the most important outcome of my Brand Discovery programme is a Brand Model. This is a document that uses twelve specific “coordinates” to precisely define the brand concerned. Elements like your values and beliefs and your character traits are all identified during the course of the process and they will clarify things like your attitude to sustainability. 

You don’t have to adopt my template. I am sure there are other options available, but you do need a brand model and it must be valid. To get it right requires self-honesty and digging deeply into your business and your motivations. You will need a tried and tested method.

Your brand model will provide a constant reference that ensures the authenticity of your words and actions. This is the key to achieving the consistency essential to the success of any brand. It will henceforth influence every decision you make in every area, at every level of your organisation.

Once you have this point of reference you should use it to revisit and question all aspects of your business to ensure they accurately represent your brand promise. This process is  the first step in any business transformation journey. 

Getting the help you need

It is essential that you remain unemotional and dispassionate about all of this and that is difficult. You’ll probably need help to gain the right level of objectivity. I appreciate it’s a hard to identify consultants able to make a worthwhile contribution to the process. These days everyone seems to think they are an expert regardless of the evidence. I suggest you start by inviting consultants to explain their process. If they have done this kind of thing before they will have a robust and defined approach.

Once you have found your expert you’ll almost certainly embark on a series of workshops. These will dig deeply into the DNA of your business to get to the bedrock on which it is built. This process alone will probably be pretty enlightening. I often find that the senior executives who take part emerge with very different thoughts on their business, the role they play in it and its role in society.

The resulting brand model should be supported by a “Brand Narrative”. There’s a lot of rubbish talked about brand narrative. It’s not, as some people would have you believe, a made-up story that romanticises your brand, to make it more attractive. It should be a rationale for your brand that will leave the reader in no doubt of your authenticity. It’s also very much a test of your brand model. If it doesn’t come together seamlessly it’s a sure sign there is something wrong with your brand model and you’ll need to go back and double check.

Defining your brand is just the first step in any transformation, but it is the most important because it dictates the future of your business. Your next step is to apply it to the many different areas of your business, one of which is your sustainability mission.

You’ll need to question the validity of your products and services and even the way you approach product development and innovation. You should look at your recruitment policies, internal processes, logistics, materials sourcing, relationships with the six segments of your brand community and your marketing communications.

The good news

The good news is you can carry on with business as usual while you fix these things and there are a few simple steps you can take that will improve your carbon balance in the short-term. At least then you will be able to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and hopefully fend off accusations of greenwashing.

Whilst I mentioned earlier that basic things like re-cycling aren’t really what sustainability transformation is about, they do make a small difference. However, it would be a mistake to tackle these and not address the broader issue at the same time.

Things like re-cycling could have an immediate impact, but bigger steps take longer to roll out, so you should start them all at the same time. Hopefully, this way, you’ll create a flow of initiatives over a sustained period and build momentum.

I can’t stress too strongly how important it is not to be tempted into greenwashing. It’s cheating, people will realise this and you’ll lose the trust of your stakeholders in no time. And trust, as we know, is the basis of any successful brand and therefore critical to the survival of your business in the digital economy.

Phil Darby
November 17, 2021

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