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30 April 2014

Save us, please, from vacuous green slogans

Green Lorry

Saw this the other day. Anybody guess what it means?

Does 'green' just refer to the company livery?

Or is it a promise of sustainable performance in the future?

Or are they saying they're doing great green stuff now to ensure a green future?

Or are they simply greenwashing?

Your guess is as good as mine...

 

 

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25 April 2014

Ask Gareth: How Green Is Green?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss the thorny issue of making green claims and how to avoid accusations of greenwash.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.

 

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22 January 2014

Green Thread = Green Wash

Green Thread
This month I had to comment publicly on an important local strategy which boasted about having "a green thread" running its policies. Yesterday, someone complimented me on the way I attacked the analogy, so I thought I would share:

I don't normally like the "green thread" analogy, but here it actually seems very appropriate. It suggests the strategy is like a blanket of many colours with a single green thread running through it. If you want to look for green, you will find traces of it, but it does nothing to change the overall colour of the blanket. Likewise in this document you will find hints of green if you look for them, but sustainability has little influence on the whole.

In other words green threads are just a form of greenwash.

 

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13 January 2014

Shout sustainability from the rooftops or keep mum?

keep mumThe first green neologism I have come across in 2014 is 'green hush'. If greenwash is exaggerating environmental performance then green hush is playing it down. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is A BAD THING.

Is it, really?

For a start, many organisations that have a good sustainability record and did publicise it have come under attack from the green movement for not being perfect. Who decides how green green is?

Secondly, what was seen as green a decade ago - ISO14001, office paper recycling, energy efficient lighting, building management systems, IT virtualisation, digitisation - are now seen as the new normal. This is obviously a good thing, but it creates the risk that you could find yourself being accused of greenwash for not keeping your marketing material right up to date.

And lastly, at the end of the day what matters is a smaller footprint, not the distracting debate that swirls around it.

That said, there is an argument that good communication of environmental performance helps raise the bar across business - and there are PR benefits for individual companies if the greenwash bear traps can be avoided. What is important is HOW the message is communicated - making it compelling, robust and in context. And that's quite a challenge.

 

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15 July 2013

Green Thread or Spinning a Yarn?

Green Thread

A while a go I mentioned an organisation which had ditched its environmental commitments and how it had fallen back from front runner to also ran. Well now they are bragging about "the green thread which runs through everything we do!"

What this appears to mean in practice is that they do business as usual and then scrabble around for a green angle to add to it. But, as I keep pointing out to them, you can't push a thread. You can't be proactive, you can't drive new projects, you can't innovate - at best you might pick the 'least bad' option in front of you. But more often than not it is greenwash pure and simple - the thread seems to be made of the same stuff than an Emperor once had some new clothes made from, because I can't see it.

Cutting edge organisations set ambitious stretch targets which drive 'green' into the core of what they do. Don't be tempted by the false seduction of green threads, cross cutting themes and other self-delusions, do it properly.

 

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30 January 2013

Cut the Bull**** - Straight Talking & Sustainability

Sustainability Plain LanguageI spent yesterday contributing to an draft of a client's sustainability strategy. What was most impressive was the Herculean attempts to keep the usual corporate PR drivel out of the text. Typically, somebody would say:

"How about 'we will endeavour to fulfil our moral obliga...' oh that's a steaming pile of meaningless management crap! How about 'we will [do X]'?"

This plain speaking was so refreshing compared to my experience in one of my Green Executive interviews. The interviewee (I won't say which one) gave a brilliantly candid interview, full of all sorts of perspectives which percolated through to the rest of the text.

Understandably, he did ask that I run the resulting text past the company's corporate communications team to check he hadn't dropped any clangers. Unfortunately they took it upon themselves to rewrite the piece into an incredibly bland, glossy press release, taking out all the good, meaty bits - in fact you could have changed the company name to any other and you wouldn't have noticed any dissonance.

After some polite to-ing and fro-ing, I told them bluntly that, unless they pointed out anything in the original that was either factually incorrect or commercially sensitive, I would publish it as it was. They refused to co-operate, so I went ahead.

Here's why we need to talk straight when it comes to sustainability:

  • It starts us off in an honest frame of mind;
  • It forces us to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to do;
  • It makes our commitments and efforts more credible - stripping away any whiff of greenwash;
  • It encourages transparency and openness;
  • It helps colleagues, suppliers and customers buy into the sustainability and understand what the organisation is really trying to do;
  • It allows all stakeholders to understand the commitments - and hold us to them.

So, I suppose this post is a bit of a plea. Let's drop the all-too-prevalent tone of the professional copywriter and tell it how it is!

 

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17 December 2012

How to pay lip service to sustainability

I generally assume that readers of this blog want to take sustainability seriously. It suddenly hit me that maybe I'm being a bit presumptuous and that could be discriminating against all those who prefer business as usual.

So if you're one of those people who really don't want to actually do anything, but don't want to be seen to do nothing, here are some top tips just for you:

  • Copy and paste your environmental policy from somebody else and simply change the company name;
  • Print the word "recyclable" on every piece of packaging, because it's true!
  • Likewise, if you can claim not to do something (eg use CFCs) when your business never did, or would, it all adds to the image;
  • Speaking off images - drop a few stock images of green things into your literature. If it looks nice, you won't have to justify it;
  • Stick a switch it off sticker on every light switch - they're dead cheap, it takes a hour or two to do and you can say you've got a employee engagement programme;
  • Delegate responsibility to someone with little or no authority - maybe even to voluntary champions;
  • Got a presentation to give or a report to write? Well, just keep dusting off the same couple of projects - it's a form of recycling!
  • Only approve energy efficiency, waste minimisation or water conservation measures if they give you a very short payback - but use them in those case studies;
  • If you must set targets, then go for something easy like saving 1% of energy year-on-year, or set a target you know you're on track to meet before you set it;
  • But you're better off never making a concrete promise to do anything - keep it vague "we are committed to helping save the planet" or some such.

Do all this and you'll have an impressive sounding, if largely ineffective, sustainability programme without having to break sweat.

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7 December 2011

Shopping for sustainability?

I was perusing the always excellent ENDS Report the other day and noticed that there were three consecutive articles covering big sustainability ventures by big retailers: John Lewis, Sainsbury's and Boots. Big retail has long had a bad press, often justified, for killing high street diversity, driving down producer incomes and globalised, high carbon supply chains.

But while all that buying power can be a bad thing, it can also be a force for good. When these big buyers say "jump", suppliers shout "how high?" If they say "we want environmentally friendly products at top quality and competitive prices", they will get them. In the Green Executive we saw how retailers like Marks & Spencer have the power to build whole new supply chains for sustainable materials.

The other twist for the big sheds is, unlike smaller retailers, they suffer from tall poppy syndrome. The fear of damaging their all important brand by being accused of greenwash drives them to do things properly. Similarly they don't want to be seen to fall behind their competitors.

Interestingly at the same time, environmental concern amongst consumers is said to be falling - probably due to short term financial worries.

So with the power and the motivation, there is a strong argument that the sustainability revolution will be driven by shops, rather than shoppers.

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28 November 2011

RBS, Fossil Fuels, Campaigns & Greenwash

Interesting story in the news this morning that Royal Bank of Scotland has pulled out of sponsoring Climate Week after pressure from NGOs angry at the bank's $13bn investments in fossil fuel industries.

To me, this is an interesting case that throws up all sorts of questions - the trickiest of which is "can no-one with a financial stake in fossil fuels campaign against climate change?" I've got half a tank of diesel in the car outside, yet I'm heading off (by fossil fuelled public transport) in 90 minutes to give a lecture on climate change to engineering students. Am I a hypocrite?

A hard line on this would surely rule out most corporate sponsors, which then begs the question - who will sponsor 'Climate Week'. Actually, I'm getting a bit cynical about all these special 'weeks' and 'days', anyway, so I'm not so bothered.

The lesson here for businesses in general is more clean cut. You won't get much credit for 'doing good' if you are still 'doing bad'. Stopping doing 'bad' things is the litmus test between a true green business and the rest. And that takes real leadership.

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7 November 2011

Is this greenwash? You decide...

A week or so ago my other half proudly presented me with a new kettle. "Look!" she said "It's an eco-friendly one!" And sure enough it was slathered in claims it would save 66% energy.

"Mmm", I thought, putting on my electrical engineer's hat (which is admittedly a bit dusty), "A heating element is 100% efficient, the heat capacity of water is constant, the heating time is so quick you won't get significant losses through the sides, so what could possibly be 66% more efficient?"

The answer is, with a flat element and a gauge that lets you see if you have a single cup of water inside, you can save energy by only boiling the amount if water you need. When I explained this to her, she felt she had been conned. We ended up having a long conversation about greenwash.

Here's the evidence as I see it:

For the prosecution:

  • An intelligent, but busy person (she has a PhD and two small kids) assumed that the kettle itself was 66% more efficient, because she's not enough of a green geek to pore over the details;
  • The savings are almost entirely dependent on the user (and the user frequently making single cups of tea/coffee);
  • The kettle hasn't changed much - probably the most significant thing was the sticker on it about energy - now gone;
  • As flat element kettles are getting more common, anyone could measure out a cup of water. Even with a traditional element kettle, you can use less water with a bit of care.

For the defence:

  • The labels clearly said that the savings would be down to you being able to use less water;
  • The nature of a kettle is such that the amount of water is the key factor in energy consumption;
  • Philips are bringing the water factor to the attention of the user;
  • The 66% figure came from a DEFRA study, so has third party validation.

So, you, the jury, what verdict would you give? Guilty, or not guilty?

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30 August 2011

Classic Greenwash


I saw this refrigerated trailer at Stranraer while waiting for the ferry to Belfast last week. If you can't make it out, it is marked with a large green footprint shape proclaiming that it is 99% recyclable.

This is a classic case of green wash as:

1. Most trailers are made of steel and aluminium and will be almost entirely recyclable. So what's the big deal with this one? Trying to make normal look green is a classic form of greenwash.

2. At an educated guess, the significant components of this trailers' life cycle impact will the fuel use to move it around and the energy to keep the contents cool. So a green trailer would be lightweight, aerodynamic, very well insulated and have a very efficient compressor. These big issues seem to have been ignored in favour of a lesser factor - another form of greenwash.

Two greenwashes for the price of one. As users of twitter would say, #epicfail.

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27 July 2011

Avoiding Greenwash: How Green is Green?


Greenwash is widely regarded as the greatest sin in the green business world. The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in response to those "hang up your towels and we won't wash them everyday" cards you find in hotel bathrooms. It's a portmanteau of 'green' and 'whitewash', meaning covering up lots of non-green activity with a token green gesture.

So, the question is, if greenwash is so evil, how green do you have to be before you can say you are green? This is a tricky one as it is a subjective judgement and the bar is constantly rising. Here are your options:

1. Be extremely ambitious: make sure your performance is so far ahead your peers that your reputation is unassailable.

2. Meet a third party standard, for example one of the many eco-labels available.

3. Get a third party respected judgement - for example Marks & Spencer use Jonathan Porritt as an independent assessor of their Plan A sustainability programme. But you must take their criticism as well as their praise.

4. Avoid the self-justification and let the observer decide: simply present your achievements and shortcomings without declaring yourself the saviour of the planet. This is dangerous as it can lead to greenwash by default, unless you are extremely honest.

Whichever approach you take, honesty, openness and transparency are the key guiding principles.

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28 April 2011

What are you going to do with all that data?

The old management aphorism "that which gets measured, gets managed" is all too true, but so is the old farmer's saying "a pig never got fattened by weighing it." In other words, yes, you should be collecting buckets of data, but that's the means to an end - acting on it is what counts.

Here's three things to do with your data:

1. Monitor progress

Choose metrics, set targets, monitor progress, act where necessary. Most data driven management works on this very simple loop. But care is needed to make sure that hitting short term targets doesn't distract from aiming for long term objectives - a good reason to eschew year on year targets (eg we will reduce carbon by 2% every year) in favour of stretch targets (we will be zero carbon by 2020).

2. Diagnose problems and find solutions

This is the fun bit for green geeks - you get to play detective. Analyse your data against time, against production output, against any other relevant variable. Compare sites, processes, teams and technologies. Do a material/energy/water balance to match inputs and outputs. Identify the big energy/water/material users for special attention.

Stuff will jump out at you - why is water use so high when the factory is shut down over Christmas? (answer: probably a leak), why does one site use more energy per unit output than another (potential answers: technology, control systems, staff culture). Why does one sales team have higher mileage per unit sold than another (potential answers: local ways of working, abuse/'jollies', different spread of customers).

3. Communicate and engage

Feedback to staff and external stakeholders needs information. But you have to choose your communication method to suit your audience. Engineers and accountants like graphs, pie charts and hard data. Creative types and the general public generally prefer more interpretative ways of expressing numbers - like the almost-ubiquitous infographic (check out this one from Fast Company on the impacts of climate change).

But here you must tread carefully or you'll end up in the greenwash mire. Make sure the data you use is accurate, up to date, relevant, representative and not misleading in anyway. Get an independent third party to check it and even endorse it for you.

Lastly,

Don't forget that numbers only provide part of the story. They can tell you about quantities, but are not so good at expressing qualities. A lot of important stuff (eg staff culture) doesn't get managed well because it can't be measured effectively. So don't just sit in front of your spreadsheets - get out there, walk about, talk to people and make sure what you witness and what you measure match up.

 

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5 January 2011

Rubbish packaging claims?


The UK's packaging regulations certainly seem to be starting to bite with even my cat food bragging about a 10% cut in cardboard. I like the way they're 'bundling' the (rather modest) environmental improvement with the benefit of less space taken up in your shopping bag, but bemused by the fact that they feel they have to remind the consumer that it hasn't changed the "great taste" of the product...


Rather underwhelming is this claim on a Sainsbury's juice carton that a minor change has cut 65 tonnes by redesigning their ringpulls. Sainsbury's are a bit coy about how much packaging goes through their stores, but extrapolating figures from their last CR report suggests it is in the region of 182,000 tonnes a year. So the 65 tonnes represents just 0.036% of their total - hardly anything to brag about.

If I were Sainsbury's I would put this in the context of their wider achievements - something like "It is innovations like this that have helped us cut 8,000 tonnes of packaging per year from our products." It has to be said that the 8,000 tonnes still only represents 4.4% of the total - making even the catfood look good!

All in all, these green claims are a bit weak, mainly because the underlying achievements are rather modest. They need to do something worth boasting about first or their efforts will simply disappear into the fug of similar claims.

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3 September 2010

Green Business Confidential Ep2: It Ain't Easy Being Green

Here's the second Green Business Confidential podcast, entitled "It Ain't Easy Being Green", for your listening pleasure:

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:
GBC2: "It Ain't Easy Being Green

Play

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13 August 2010

Green on Green

In military parlance, a "blue on blue" is when units on the same side mistake each other for the enemy and open fire. The same thing happens with irritatingly high frequency in the environmental sector, the most recent case being the attacks on the proposals for a green motorway service station in the Cotswolds. The credentials of the facility are impressive - green buildings, alternative fuels and local foods, the problem seems to be the 'motorway' bit - a green motorway service station is seen as an oxymoron.

Poppycock. That's the only phrase I can use without breaching my own no swearing rule here on the virtual Terra Infirma Towers (the air in the real Towers is often blue). Nowhere in any scenario of a sustainable future will people not travel or eat, meaning they will want to refuel themselves and their vehicles (public or private) while they are travelling. So its not an oxymoron to provide those services on a low carbon basis, on the contrary, it is essential.

But this is just one example of 'commentators' who paint themselves so fundamentally green that no progress will ever be good enough (as it would mean they would have nothing to moan about). Criticising others is the easiest thing in the word and, while often necessary, has minimal virtue compared to actually doing something positive. As Ross Perot once said 'the activist doesn't say "the river is dirty", the activist cleans up the river.'

So should businesses like the developer of this motorway services just give up if nothing they do is good enough? In a word, no. In The Three Secrets of Green Business, I identified a number of "green hyenas" who look for weaknesses in green efforts to feed on - one of which was the fundamentalist green who will never approve of anything done by business. While hyenas are generally unpleasant animals (I've seen one take a wildebeest down by the, ahem, family jewels), they perform a very important role in the eco-system by weeding out the weak and clearing up waste. Same in business and sustainability - we do need the self-righteous critics to sniff out the greenwash even if they sometimes/frequently miss the target. Use them to spur you to greater efforts, greater transparency and greater honesty. The best way to beat them is to be impeccable.

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22 March 2010

When does Greenwash start and end?

The word greenwash came up quite a lot during my various presentations and discussions last week. The Cambridge Dictionary definition of greenwash is:

"to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is"

The conversation came up because the conclusion of my business case model is that many organisations are trying to reap the 'higher level' benefits like winning more business using strategies that are designed for cost cutting. As an example I quoted a client who had turned down a project which would have been a great green marketing opportunity but had no economic return in favour of a backroom project which would have a much bigger environmental benefit and an economic return.

My point was that, if they had gone with the former project they would have engaged more of the public and communicated their message better than 100 sustainability reports. "Is that not greenwash?" they asked. "Is boasting about a project which gives an economic return not greenwash?" I countered, tongue in cheek.

The answer is you can pretty much accuse anything of being greenwash - and many people on the anti-capitalist fringe of the green movement do. So all green marketing is fraught with danger.

My advice is:

  • Never, ever overstate what you are doing.
  • Don't ignore the elephant in the room - if you produce persistent and bioaccumulative pesticides, no-one is going to be impressed with your office paper recycling system.
  • Don't tell people you are green, rather show them what you have done and let them make up their own mind.
  • Balance backroom projects with 'shop window' projects - so you can engage your customers/the wider public.
  • If you are really clever you can use the 'economic' projects to finance the 'non-economic' projects.

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27 January 2010

Making Green Look Normal...

I was quite harsh on John Grant's Green Marketing Manifesto when I reviewed it, but while I'm doing the zillionith edit to The Green Executive, I've been having a think about his main maxim:

"Green Marketing is about making green stuff seem normal, not about making normal stuff seem green"

The first part is really quite powerful and chimes with the need to aim green products at the mass market rather than the green niche to get any worthwhile impact from and environmental point of view. And the second part really skewers greenwash - that if you want to be green, you've really got to break from the norm, not put a green prism in front of what business does as a matter of course.

I like it. I like it a lot.

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