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#BCorpMonth: How can you avoid the greenwashing trap?

March 29th 2023

Greenwashing has ironically become a dirty word. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as; ‘The creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image’.

Pretty sinister, given mounting evidence that our environment is in chaotic decline, that temperatures are soaring globally, that as many as 2,000 species a year face extinction, and air quality continues to fall with an alarming effect on public health.

But greenwashing isn’t always the product of malicious fabrication. Broadly speaking, the motives for making false claims fall into two categories. The first features those who wish to cover up an inconvenient (and often reckless) corporate truth – the Montgomery Burns of the world, knowingly overseeing systematic environmental catastrophe. The second includes the well-meaning organisations boosting their climate creds incrementally or selectively, but still misleadingly – the corporate version of telling your friends you’re vegan but still ordering pigs-in-blankets at the pub.

These are very different purposes, but they can result in the same outcome – a damaged planet and damaged trust.

Beyond this primary ethical issue with greenwashing as a practice, there is of course a secondary, and more pragmatic reason to avoid telling tall tales. It’s bad for business.

As part of our corporate communications function here at Lodestone, it’s our job to advise business leaders the world over on how to tell their organisation’s story: in other words, how best they can align their brand with the parts of the world that they consider their community. There are endless ways of connecting with your community and encouraging them to join your journey, but there is one obvious and painful way of undoing that hard work: lying to them.

We’ve all seen cherished brands called out for their misreporting of emissions, their poor-quality working conditions, their questionable supply chains, and their greenwashing. Not only are these people ignoring their ethical responsibility as business leaders; they’re also directly hurting the bottom line as boycotts and crises harm sales.

Of course, mistakes happen and reporting on your organisation’s environmental and social impact can become resource-intensive and confusing. But people aren’t fools: we’re all mostly able to spot the difference between deliberate lies and honest mistakes. The reaction from your community, supply chain, customers and peers when an accusation of greenwashing has been made will rapidly tell you where you stand.

So how can we make sure we don’t fall into the trap of the second group? How do we maintain agency in not supporting those who live in the first?


Tips for Business Leaders

  • Know your community. Knowing your supply chains, the ethics of your suppliers and partners, and surrounding yourself with likeminded people, will help to optimise transparency.
  • Be clear. Tell the truth and do it in language that your community can understand. If you’re doing something the best way you can right now, say that, and make a commitment to take the next step once it’s achievable.
  • Don’t dream it, be it. Back up your claims with evidence. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, verify your claims, and once you’ve got the hang of it, teach someone else and spread the knowledge.
  • Don’t take liberties. Don’t mislead by using generic, suggestive marketing which doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. False advertising claims are especially dangerous with regulators around the world tackling vague language.
  • Do what you can. You can’t save the world alone – so concentrate on identifying the few things that will make a real difference. There are plenty of people who can help you narrow down the list to make it manageable.
  • Invite challenge. Don’t just ask yourself how you can #gobeyond: ask the people who power your business – your employees – what matters to them. That’s how you will end up pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.
  • Become part of the B Corp community. Being certified and working with other B Corp organisations means you have access to an ever-growing community of businesses that are constantly curious about the next step forward.

Tips for the Campaigning Citizen

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. You can only do so much and what you’re doing now is making a difference. Life is to be lived, and if that means not being the perfect environmentalist from time to time, that’s fine.
  • Research, research, research. There’s no way around it if you want to know who deserves your support. But looking for a B Corp certificate can save you a lot of time, and you’ll be supporting a community that’s already doing more than most.
  • Share knowledge. Learn from your likeminded friends, share tips on which organisations to support, and spread the message!
  • Be patient. The majority of organisations really are trying. The level of adjustment required for businesses to get this right is huge, so don’t write people off forever because they’re not where they need to be today.