A disease named greenwashing

Hey all,

After the session today I was thinking about greenwashing and I found this roadmap in the internet. It shows how a company, with a change of heart, found its way out of the disease named greenwashing.

  • We admitted we were powerless with greenwashing – that our company had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a concept greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  • Made a decision to turn our will and our business strategy over to the care of environment and society as we understood it.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  • Admitted to society, to ourselves and to other human beings the exact nature of our wrongs.
  • Were entirely ready to have real sustainability efforts remove all these defects of our company.
  • Humbly asked to remove our shortcomings.
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  • Continued to take our companies inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  • Sought through reflections on our business to improve our conscious contact with the environment and society as we understood it, acquiring more knowledge to support those efforts.
  • Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other greenwashers and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

So you can see, they had an awakening as the result of letting go of greenwashing. If you admit that there is something wrong and you realize that you can change and that this change is for the good of all, also you will benefit from it. But to be honest, I didn’t find this list with exactly those words in the Internet. It is actually the 12 steps from Alcoholics Anonymus which I edited a little bit to make it fit greenwashing. (Here is a link to the original steps so you can see what I edited: http://www.aa.org.au/members/twelve-steps.php) Nevertheless I found that those steps can quite easily be applied to the topic of greenwashing. =)

My personal position towards greenwashing is two sided. On the one hand of course I think that it is wrong to do so, but on the other hand I also believe that it kind of signals the first step towards real efforts. I would say a company that starts greenwashing is better than a company that doesn’t, assuming that those two companies are identical. The thing is that by greenwashing a company publicly acknowledges that there is a problem, even though they are only pretending to do something against it. Having undertaken this step there is hardly a way back. As long as everybody believes that the efforts are real other companies have to follow up and introduce sustainability concepts as well, as the greenwashing company puts pressure on the market. Of course this will result in new greenwashers, but also real efforts. The point is that it will be almost impossible for companies somewhen not to behave sustainably in at least some way and also greenwashing companies will find it more and more difficult to conceal their practices. This will very likely lead them to adept real ‘green’ behavior or face the wrath of the consumer society when uncovered. So in my opinion greenwashing has a good side as well as it helps the whole market to acknowledge problems, and this acknowledgement is the first step to healing.

One more note:

Greenwashers Anonymus meetings are taking place every 1st and 3rd Friday each month. Address is Eerikinkatu 23, please register on our homepage first (of course anonymously) so we can estimate the number of people attending. Drinks not included! 😉

Greets, Jörg

  1. Hi Jörg!
    First of all, kudos to your AA-analogy, I totally fell for it!! As you have shown, there are definitely parallels between abandoning alcoholism and abandoning greenwashing.
    You also mention that there is also a good side to greenwashing, as it can be considered as the first sign of true effort towards a more sustainable business. I would like to agree and add another facet to the discussion: not all companies which commit one or several greenwashing sins do so on purpose.

    The journey towards conducting sustainable business is a long and bumpy one. Last summer I worked for a sustainability consultant in the areas of Sustainable Supply Chain Management and Sustainability Reporting. During my work in the latter, I came across the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which aims at creating a global standard for sustainability reporting. The GRI reporting guidelines are comprised of a great number of different requirements, not all of which are of equal importance to all industries. Gathering all the data required to report one’s company’s sustainability performance is a major task with many pitfalls. There are also industry-specific amendments which increase a report’s relevance, but also its complexity, even further.

    It is virtually impossible to create a perfect report in the first or even second attempt (which provided the consultancy I worked for with a steady stream of income), nor is this desirable in my view. It might be better to deliver an incomplete report in the first year and start dealing with discovered issues on the go than to wait for the entire picture. But while doing so, one is bound to commit the “Sin of Hidden Trade-offs”, for instance. The company would certainly report efforts that are already underway to show their commitment while unknowingly omitting issues that have not even been discovered yet.
    As soon as Greenpeace then discovers a factory far up the supply chain which poisons rivers, our company will face accusations of having lied in their report, although they have started to improve in other areas. The tables have turned and the public now focuses on the bad sides.

    A company undergoing a shift of mindsets towards a sustainability journey must be aware of the complexity of the issues ahead. In order to avoid a major loss in credibility as pictured above, the firm should therefore establish and publish a plan, in a big organisation maybe over several years, in which they define the stages of reporting their sustainability performance. To avoid the “Sin of Irrelevance”, they should of course start by reporting major issues related to their operations which can be analysed and evaluated within the first year of reporting. And of course they can consult external experts who can help them to avoid common pitfalls.
    If the firm itself knows about the complexity of the issue and clearly states in its report that the reporting to date has clearly defined limits, it should be possible to avoid the accusations of greenwashing their business and maintain their credibility.

  2. jorghronek said:

    I have been taking part in a CSR reporting competition last year where we had to evaluate 8 reports from Finnish companies. The GRI guidelines, their complexity and the work necessary to fulfill them was a big topic throughout the event. In my opinion it is not a good idea to follow such general guidelines, even though they are industry specific. With the resources that you put into fulfilling the guidelines you could have achieved much more by applying the resources you have to your specific context. In some way they are of course helpful but in my opinion following the GRI doesn’t make your’s a responsible enterprise. Nevertheless they are necessary step at the moment and I agree with you that you can learn a lot in the process. Those hidden trade-offs you can’t avoid, it’s also an ongoing process of discovering and learning.

  3. Good one, a great analogy that I haven’t seen used before. Here’s a question: can anyone think of a company that has successfully (at least to an extent) healed through GA? 🙂

    Btw Jörg, I also strongly agree with your points about sustainability reporting and GRI in particular; my own experiences are largely similar, and many company representatives have expressed similar views.


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