Why greenwashing is a loser’s game
'Ecoman' Malcolm Rands, founder and chief executive of the Ecostore, is well aware of 'greenwashing' – when organisations make bold claims on sustainability that don't stack up under even cursory scrutiny.
"Greenwashing is when you change the lightbulbs to energy efficient lightbulbs and then say 'We're a green company now,'" he explains.
"It's making some move in the right direction and thinking that's enough and claiming you are green. I want those companies to change lightbulbs, don't get me wrong, but this is a journey not a destination."
But there are many examples of companies going far beyond doing the bare minimum.
Claire Nicholson, chief executive of Sirona Animal Health, says compliance with sustainable business best practice has to become a "want to do" rather than a "have to do" process.
Nicholson says she is involved in a Maori dairy incorporation in Taranaki. Because dairy farming is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, any new developments in the business must consider the environment. This approach has seen the company adopt bio‐digesters and photovoltaic panels, she says.
"We are all about preserving and actually improving our assets so they are still there for future generations to have prosperity from."
Kirk Hope, chief executive of Business NZ, cites the positive example of competing fishing companies banding together to reduce by‐catch of small fish and unwanted species through developing a replacement for trawl netting.
Teaki, as the project is now called, is the product of NZ$48 million of investment by the government, and fishing companies Sealord, Sanford and Aotearoa Fisheries.
Hope says this reduces the externalities – costs borne by the environment and society – of fishing.
"That's a real positive example of what businesses are doing, not alone, but together," he says.
Rands says the solution to greenwashing is "radical transparency" – being very open and specific about what you are doing and how your business operates.
"We've completely opened up our supply chain to all our customers," he says. "You can go into Ecostore and find out for each ingredient where it comes from and get an independent health rating for each ingredient.
"If we make a health claim, as an amateur you can go in and check them out for yourself."
For Lindy Nelson, chief executive of the Agri‐Women's Development Trust, a social change lies behind much of the enthusiasm for sustainability.
"Individuals and communities need to think about their own responsibility to live sustainably," she says. "I'm starting to see those sorts of things, people starting to care for each other in a different way and behave in a different way."
People are connecting by growing their own food and thinking about what they buy at the supermarket.
"We have to grow up a little ourselves and start to live a little bit sustainably... It's a bigger argument than just putting it back on business."
It seems tardy business managers who think they can do the bare minimum are heading for a rude shock. Profits, customers and shareholder value are all at risk for those who think a slap of green paint is all that is required.
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