Greenwashing is an elusive CSR attempt

Greenwashing is a phrase used in advertising to describe initiatives taken by organisations to preserve the environment; this they do to improve their public image.

CSR, greenwashing, corporates

Greenwashing is a phrase used in advertising to describe initiatives taken by organisations to preserve the environment; this they do to improve their public image. The term ‘greenwashing’ is in use since the 1960s, but became famous in the 1990s when environmental awareness became a movement across the world. Organisations struggle to get public attention and customers’ mind share; pretending to be environment-friendly is one such attention-seeking measure.

One of the huge corporations, Royal Dutch Shell, has been frequently accused and penalised for its greenwashing campaigns. Its most famous ad campaign—“Don’t throw anything away; there is no away”—highlights the claim of growing flora and fauna out of carbon dioxide emissions, but it was found to be misleading and heavily criticised. In January 2017, a UK High Court ruled out a claim against Dutch Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary’s oil spill, in which two Niger Delta communities were shattered completely. The Court’s order clearly showcased robbing of justice and allowing the UK multinational to commit abuses overseas with impunity. Law is, indeed, blind.

Another example is of General Motors; it wanted to promote its production and development of fuel-efficient vehicles. In 2007, GM launched its “Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free” campaign, attempting to re-frame the company as environmentally-progressive. Regardless of its effort, General Motors continued to be the leading producer of gas-guzzler automobiles. The campaign highlighted its ways of greening the automobile industry: increasing fuel-efficiency, producing vehicles that can run on E85 ethanol fuel blend, developing hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cells. The pretence went on while still heavily producing gas-guzzling vehicles.

Greenwashing is a spin of corporate social responsibility (CSR) in declaring itself to promoting environmentally-friendly policies whereas, in reality, the company does not live up to the commitment. Companies keep making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of its products, services, technology and strategic practices. It’s, in fact, an eyewash.

In 2013, Revlon campaigned for breast cancer awareness and raising funds for patients of breast cancer. During the campaign, it got accused of using chemicals linked to cancer in its cosmetics; the company called the charges “false and defamatory.” But, later, Revlon went on to publish its ingredients policy and was declared as one of the environmental-friendly working groups. The company reformulated some products to eliminate certain chemicals of concern; long-chain parabens and DMDM Hydantoin and Quaternium-15, which release tiny amounts of formaldehyde. Revlon later communicated that their campaign of breast cancer was genuine and eliminating the harmful chemicals from the production process was well under way before it began talking about the Breast Cancer Fund.
Today, when people are well-informed about side-effects of products and services due to social media impact, the transparency matters. In fact, transparency is the foundation of corporate governance.

In 2013, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) committed to halt deforestation under its Forest Conservation Policy. Prior to this, APP and its pulpwood suppliers had a history of almost 30 years of deforestation, destruction of wildlife habitat, peat drainage and conflicts with local communities related to the acquisition of land for wood harvesting and pulpwood plantation development in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) announced its decision to suspend APP’s illegal activities in the forests; APP remains the first among a very small number of the most controversial companies in the world that FSC has disassociated from. In August 2018, FSC gave an order to APP to align and put in place its corporate structure aligned with measures to put a full stop to its alleged unacceptable forest management activities, including its suppliers.

Throughout the 1990s, Nike was targeted by labour activists and anti-globalisation forces for allowing its suppliers in poor countries to abuse and exploit workers. In the beginning, Nike said it couldn’t be responsible for conditions in factories it didn’t own. Protests and media reports proliferated. In 1996, Life magazine published a story headlined “Six Cents an Hour” with a photo of a Pakistani boy sewing Nike soccer balls. Though it was slow in coming, Nike eventually set up an extensive and expensive system for monitoring and remedying factory conditions in its supply chain, and the rest of the footwear and apparel industry followed in its footsteps. In essence, greenwashing involves incorrectly conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution cares for the environment. As consumers become more eco-conscious, organisations are buckling up numerous stories and going greater lengths to present themselves as environmentally-friendly. Some companies make inflated and absurd claims, while others resort to blatant lies.

But let’s understand that there is a growing concern about environmental safety worldwide. There are tools to safeguard the environment and a consensus is made on easing the production of environmentally-friendly products. To make the use of these tools more efficiently, companies have adopted corporate governance principles that are not only put into practice in the higher ranks of organisations, but are also spread among small and medium scale organisations and are closely monitored by government agencies. Workplace safety, correct work procedures, worksite analysis, hazard prevention and control have become crucial.

Globalisation has created cross-border alliances paving way for more opportunities, but it also has put stringent rules and regulations for human and environment protection. Adding environmental management to their internal policies is a must for organisations. Companies must conform and endorse to legislation by investing more in clean technologies and merchandise that cause lowering pollution. Greenwashing is a temporary measure that might help organisations for a while, but in the long run, it just doesn’t work.

Vidya Hattangadi
The author is a management thinker and blogger

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