Interesting CSRChat on Twitter last night, featuring David Gelles who writes on Business & Sustainability for the New York Times. He mentioned that he thought it was relatively easy to get good press out of sustainability stories. I flipped it around and suggested it was equally easy for journalists to find fault with the same stories and accuse them of greenwash.
The word greenwash is said to have been coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt complaining about those "we only launder towels left on the floor signs" found in hotels – which I actually find a bit harsh as that always struck me as a neat quick win. Westervelt's argument was the true motivation here is profit – making the same argument as Aneel Karnani made last year that true Corporate Social Responsibility should harm the business concerned in economic terms.
This is crazy. If a company managed to make a huge leap forward in sustainability, for example a breakthrough in biofuel from algae which slashed the carbon emissions of the airline industry with negligible land use impacts (unlikely I know, but go with me), making a fortune as a result, would it be greenwash to call it a green business? Clearly not.
On the other hand we need a sceptical press to cut through corporate spin and expose the reality behind many green claims – or the bigger picture from which they may distract. Anita Roddick may have dismissed Joe Entine, who popularised the term greenwash in his exposé of less than green behaviour at Body Shop, as a weird obsessive, but she tightened up the company's transparency and reporting as a result of his investigations.
As I get older, I have learnt that no thing and no body is ever 100% good or 100% bad, no matter what the media or Twitter hashtags say. As the sustainability field matures, practitioners and commentators need to become more realistic than the activist movement from whence we emerged. They survive on a diet of outrage, justified or otherwise, which can do more harm than good, we need to work in shades of green.
And my advice to any business announcing an achievement? Frame it as "We are very proud of this, but it is just one step on a longer journey." But don't be put off doing well by doing good.