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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What is Greenwash?

The blogosphere is full of accusations of greenwash and I think there is some justification. I intended that the Four Dimensions of Sustainability framework would add to the understanding of greenwash and help companies avoid the label by taking the right actions on sustainability.

The first part of the test seems to be reasonably straightforward. Let’s say for the sake of an illustration I were to introduce 50% hybrid vehicles into my vehicle fleet, I shouldn’t claim in my communications that this in itself makes me a green company unless my vehicle fleet contributes a significant proportion of my emissions. This is a pretty straightforward materiality test that sits within the direct dimension of the Four Dimensions of Sustainability.

But we need to go further and ensure that actions and communications on sustainability are also consistent across the four dimensions (within the context of materiality).

For example we might be less understanding of a company that has reduced the in-life energy consumption of its products and publicizes the green benefit (dimension – in life), but is pursuing a policy path (dimension – inform and influence) that is designed to undermine constructive legislation and regulation on climate change. Or a company that communicated to its customers that its products and services can help them reduce their footprint through substitution (dimension – enabled impact) but had done little or nothing to reduce its own footprint.

I would maintain that conflicting or inconsistent actions between the dimensions (within the context of materiality) is a sign of greenwash and stakeholders should call it out as such.

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