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29 May 2018

Jung, Greenwash and Sustainability

Gotta love Twitter some times, and last night I saw this wonderful quote attributed to Carl Jung:*

"You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

This is extremely important in Sustainability, particularly amongst leaders, as talk without action is greenwash. It will breed cynicism and destroy trust. 'Doing' sets apart the real Sustainability leaders from those who just preach.

But I'd like to paraphrase it slightly:

"You are what you stop doing, not what you say you'll stop doing."

We will never get to Sustainability (or remotely close) if we don't stop doing the unsustainable stuff. Business as usual plus some sustainable pet projects is not sustainable. Creative destruction is an essential part of the the equation and shows true leadership.


*as always I've tried to verify this quote, but couldn't find either a source, or for that matter a take down.

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10 November 2017

How to spot a Sustainability fig leaf...

Yesterday I drove down the A19 to Teesside for a client meeting. Every time I do this, there's always a nostalgic moment when I crest the lip of the Tees Valley; a vista of sprawling heavy industry opens up and I know I'm nearly at my destination.

Usually, this scene brings back memories of my lengthy commute to the University of Teesside where I ran the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) for six years, my second Sustainability job. But yesterday, a memory from my maiden Sustainability job at Newcastle University popped back into my consciousness.

I was one of two researchers working on the Design for a Clean Environment project at the Engineering Design Centre. Every couple of months, a retired senior industrialist would pop in for a chat. He always came armed with a red folder, and, no matter what the subject of conversation, he would, without fail, flip it open to show us the same graph of air quality in the Tees Valley through the day.

"Look at the peaks of pollution!" he would say "They correspond with rush hour in the morning and the school run in the afternoon. It's not industry doing the polluting, it's people taking their kids to school!"

The folder and the graph became a running joke. Once my colleague asked to borrow the folder and he was like a parent leaving his toddler at nursery for the first time.

The sudden realisation I had yesterday was, as the petrochemical plants ran 24/7, given steady weather conditions, their contribution would be largely constant. Therefore any cyclical pattern would simply superimpose itself on top of the industrial contribution and produce those peaks. I would love to see that graph again and look at the relative contribution in terms of the area under the line which would probably tell a truer story.

But dubious statistics aside, one of the giveaways of a Sustainability fig leaf in this case is the predictable repetition. If an individual or an organisation keeps wheeling out the same data or case study again and again, I smell a rat.

A genuine commitment, whether in science, politics or industry, moves things forward. If someone doesn't have something new to say over the course of a year, then the greenwash klaxon should be going off in your head.


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9 September 2016

Greenwash of the Week


You would have to have a very strange existence if your whole footprint was "greatly reduced" and all your waste was eradicated simply by changing from disposable earplugs to reusable ones. Of course they mean that reusables are better than disposables, but they should say that.

Sloppy, but all too common.


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25 August 2016

Virtue Signalling: an insidious form of greenwash

I've always hated those pious "Save the planet: don't print this e-mail" statements in people's e-mail signature blocks. Why? Because it is blatant 'virtue signalling' – making the author sound virtuous without the inconvenience of actually doing anything virtuous themselves, in this case admonishing others for something they would probably never do.

Fortunately those e-mail mini-sermons are less common these days, unfortunately they seem to be being replaced by equally vacuous tweets instead. This one caught my eye last week:

Note that the instruction is aimed at the reader, not the author. How many people do you think will see this flicker past on their twitter stream and sit up and say "Oh, I'd never thought of that!"? The "saving a shoe is saving the earth" hashtag is particularly amusing in its vapidity.

Now, if they had linked to a document explaining what elements of a shoe can be repaired and how, that would be useful to the reader and would be making a minor contribution to sustainability. But as it is, this is a particularly irritating form of greenwash.


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29 January 2016

Where does greenwash end?


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.


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26 June 2015


cipd bag lo resOn Wednesday I was at an event organised by CIPD North East for HR professionals. I'd been asked to come along by my colleague Tracy Scurry of Newcastle University Business School as she was facilitating a discussion session on the role of human resources on sustainability and she thought my experiences would add to the conversation.

As is often the case in these sessions, the interesting thing is the 'journey' that delegates go on. At the start, the discussion was centred around how people could be persuaded to behave in a sustainable way, by the end, it had evolved to focus on how to keep up with the sustainability demands of current and future employees. That's quite a change in perspective and the change in mindset of delegates alone made the session worthwhile, never mind all the hints and tips.

By chance, when I got home, I came across a zingy quote in a WBCSD document:


Actually, I'm not sure it is strictly true. Surveys suggest on 10% of business drive CSR/sustainability through HR (although that figure had doubled in the last few years). But it is certainly true that if employees are not involved, they will tend to see any CSR project as greenwash and the project will almost certainly be less effective than it would without the involvement.

Whether employee involvement in sustainability is driven by HR is a different matter... but if you want to engage your HR department in sustainability, it's a flattering quote!



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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.


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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