May Monthly Briefing: Greenwashing – redefining an age-old problem

Way back in the early days of non-financial reporting, I used to have my own unofficial sniff test – a quick count of the number of photos showing outsized donation cheques and random smiling children to illustrate supposedly fundamental action. Thankfully the former now rarely feature, even if the latter haven’t entirely disappeared.

These days, things are altogether more serious, with a consumer backlash and regulatory intervention. The prospect of fines of up to four percent of annual sales puts this firmly into the business mainstream.

Our writers this month cover the bases – examples of companies that have tripped up, advice to look along the supply chain around the world, a suggested action plan, the offer of a risk detector, even a lexicon of greenwashing (dubbed a laundry list, get it?). 

In short, the key is to look at the product, service, or activity in the round before making a claim about any aspect – then to underclaim and over deliver. We also extend the analysis to look at ‘social washing’, a much broader category covering human rights, communities, and many other features of business behaviour.

But here’s an uncomfortable thought – shouldn’t these strictures also apply to whole companies, not just one aspect of claimed performance? How many of us talk proudly of our sustainable business strategies and plans, when our model is still firmly linear, when our value chain is nowhere near operating within planetary boundaries, and when stakeholders aren’t all getting a fair share of the rewards? Even when we talk about our ‘journey’, we are not specific on how far distant we are from true corporate sustainability. Just saying.

Visit the May Monthly Briefing here.

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