Greenwashing; Legitimizing the Quest Towards a Safe Planet?
Having played both roles of a manufacturer and regulator in a developing economy, I can certainly ascertain that there is a big gap that needs to be filled regarding green claims. This time around, the gap encompasses the organizations, the regulators, and consumers in equal measure.
The fact remains that consumers in developed countries are more likely to buy from a sustainable company even if it means waiting a day longer as compared to an unsustainable one. With such a realization, businesses are beginning to look at sustainability as a competitive tool and are moving fast in their transitional agenda to become green.
It won’t be long before consumers in developing countries become conscious as well. But as for now, those who do consider sustainability in their purchases in developing economies are but a few largely due to a lack of knowledge, inadequate access to information, and huge gaps in governance, especially in the ratification of any claims made by organizations.
Green is the new cool kid on the block. Companies must adapt or be extinct. Yet becoming sustainable comes at a cost. There are new huge investments that need to be made and serious changes in processes, formulations, research and development, and compliance.
And this is where some organizations decide to cut corners. The high cost of becoming sustainable pushes them to what is now called greenwashing. In other words, they set claims whose substantiation turns out to be true.
For a minute, ask yourself how true that product you love as green is indeed green. Sounds cliché but that becomes the first point of why we can easily be greenwashed and not be aware of it. Most of us can’t tell from the use of a product that the claims beings made are true.
Suppose a detergent manufacturer says they use natural surfactants, for instance, unless you are very good with chemistry you may not be able to tell it. You may then argue that the list of ingredients confirms that yet still unless there is stringent regulation, those ingredients could all be a matter of meeting the requirements of the regulator.
One of the key pillars of sustainability transformation is integrity. Organizations have to be honest with the information they give to the public about their sustainability progress in general. We sometimes focus more on the product and forget to look at the organization itself.
Suppose a company brings a new innovative green product to the market that is excellent in terms of functionality yet the process of making that product is not green at all, do we close our eyes and say at least they have tried on the bare minimum in terms of consumer safety? What about the environment?
There must be a balance in terms of the whole value chain, and mark my words – I did not say supply chain. When I talk about value chain, the supply chain is included as well as the processes involved and the people. In other words, it entails the product, process, people, and price.
In 2022, at COP27, major organizations ‘committed’ themselves to accelerate their progress towards net zero attainments by 2050. The centrality of integrity comes to play at the intersection of the freedom to truthfully self-access and report the true findings willingly.
To help legitimize the reporting, organizations should allow external IROs (Independent Review Organizations) to come and audit their progress and thus offer them a unique differentiation for identifying them as truly meeting the sustainability claims they make.
For both developed and developing countries, these IROs should strive to be free and independent of manipulation and corruption. For developing countries where corruption is still prevalent at every level and sector, it calls for IROs with the interest of the people at heart.
Otherwise, they end up greenwashing the public by legitimizing false claims made by organizations due to corrupt engagements. This is mostly true where inspections pertain to the processes and overall organizational engagements such as energy and water use.
As a consumer, you may not have an opportunity to go and physically visit your beloved organization and confirm that they have cut water wastage in their processes by a certain percentage or introduced measures that ensure energy efficiency.
So, when the organization makes such a claim on its website or press releases, you believe them. Without IRO backing, you cannot ascertain truly if the claims are true. At least for people, you can interact with them to understand employee development which is a key component in organizational sustainability requirements. But even then, one has to be careful.
When IRO backing comes into the picture, we tend to believe them yet if honesty has been traded for those ratifications, we could be taken for a ride. For organizations, such undertakings can be very costly to be honest especially when they come to the public light.
So be it a product or organizational claim about green, we need to be careful to go a notch higher to confirm that the claims being made are true and not a rush to cash in on opportunity costs for the sake of investor returns.
Greenwashing is not simple as it may look and organizations should be careful not to overemphasize their green claims which can come to haunt them later. One step at a time remains the best approach in the green or sustainability journey for organizations.