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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Guest Blog Post: EMC

Greenwashing? Or Greenbashing?

In his March 4 blog entry, Kevin quite rightly points out the frequency of accusations of greenwashing, which are coming fast and thick in the blogosphere as well as the more class media (905,000 hits on Google and 539 books on Amazon). He suggests that companies can "avoid the label by taking the right actions on sustainability." That would indeed be true if accusations of greenwashing were actually correlated to taking the wrong actions in the majority of cases. But I'm not at all sure it's true.

First of all, let me go on record as abhorring companies that knowingly "spin" their messages to sound as though a product or action is environmentally friendly when it is anything but. They confuse the market, invite cynicism, and generally make a bad name for all companies that are trying to do the right thing. Nor do I have a lot of sympathy for complete ignorance and am happy to denounce claims that bamboo cigarette holders will save the planet.

But there are other less worthy targets for the label. There is the slightly naïve company (or, more likely, marketing communications person) who is genuinely proud of positive steps that were taken in their own right, but hasn't looked at them in the greater context of materiality. I'd rather see us teach these folks then publicly castigate them. But OK, so public humiliation may not be pleasant, but it is educational.

What about the more aggressive companies that push the edge of the envelope, by necessity running up against the untested and controversial, and then getting slapped down for their efforts? I can just see the execs at peer companies saying "Thank goodness it wasn't my company out there in front". Yes, people were educated by the criticism, too. They were taught that taking risk is a really bad idea if you don't want to end up on the front page of the paper.

And then there's the "whitespace" situation in which a company is doing something relevant and material, so gets chastised for something else they haven't (yet) done, even if it's far less material. Perhaps we shouldn't publish anything - but then how to defend to your stakeholders why you were bypassed by all those "100 Best…" lists and responsible investment indexes?

I was asked during a panel session recently whether private industry was "doing enough". Nope, we're not. Not by a long shot. But constant media attacks on those that are trying isn't going to speed up progress.

Maybe the critics should start applying the test of materiality to their own diatribes.

Kathrin Winkler is Sr. Director, Corporate Sustainability at EMC Corporation, where she has a history of taking on entirely new roles in which she has to fill in the interstices between more traditional functions. Kathrin (aka "Kate") took on the full-time sustainability position in July of 2008, and maintains her own blog Interconnected World where she documents her personal and professional journey. These views are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.


  1. Totally agree with Kathrin, although I'd add a fourth consideration of "industry/competitive context" before applying the greenwashing label. I wrote a follow-up defending companies like BP here: Let's not bash turtles for not moving as fast as the hares.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer. And you have a good point - there are sector-specific contexts to consider as well.

    Interestingly, Joel Makower blogged about Greenwashing yesterday, too. See