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The terms “greenwash” and “greenwashing” were reportedly first used by American ecologist Jay Westerveld in the mid-1980s to describe the practice of making invalid or inappropriate environmental claims. Westerveld used these terms to describe the hotel industry’s practice of claiming to contribute to saving the world by allowing guests to replace used towels on the towel rail in order to defer some of the washing that used to take place when towels were replaced daily by housekeeping staff. In the context of the environmental footprint of a hotel the amount of energy and water that goes to daily towel washing is very small. Reducing washing of guest towels is not going to save the world.

Since the greenwash term became popular its usage has grown to the point that it is now used by such high level officials as the Secretary‑General of the United Nations: “We must have zero tolerance for net‑zero greenwashing.” Even the Pope has voiced concerns about greenwashing sustainable development and the misuse of the term “green development.” However, the term is still mostly used by environmentalists to clobber industry and politicians who are not performing to the highest of environmental standards. Is it not better to cut the water and energy usage of the laundry which you control by maybe 35 per cent than to do nothing to help the environment?

Given that our environmental challenges are most likely going to be met one small step at a time rather than in one big swoosh maybe we should develop another word that gives positive recognition to the small steps forward while continuing to acknowledge that much more needs to be done.

In the time that it takes the community of wordsmiths to smith such a new word it seems likely that the practice of industry and politician bashing for not doing enough for the environment or for other social ills will continue. Organizations in virtually all sectors are criticized almost every day by critics who claim, perhaps correctly, that doing something is still not doing enough. This makes it challenging for companies and governments to develop a solid reputation for sound environmental and social responsibility performance.

Over the years some strategies have been developed that help cement a solid green reputation. For the organization, corporate, governmental, or non-profit, these include:

  • Consult with truly independent outside experts – ideally, environmental consultants – before finalizing an environmental or social responsibility strategy and during the implementation process. This is not because you do not trust your in-house experts but because the view from outside is very often quite different from the view from inside. Outside experts will provide a perspective much closer to that of those who may become your critics than any insider can provide.
  • Develop a comprehensive implementation plan for your environmental or social responsibility strategy before announcing it to the world. There is not much worse for your reputation than announcing a strategy, for example to achieve net zero carbon emissions, only to find later that it cannot be implemented and has to be retracted.
  • Provide frequent way points and annual reports to show progress along your path. A claim that you will meet net zero by 2050 and then to do nothing by 2025 is totally lacking in credibility. Organisations that behave this way deserve the condemnation that they will receive.
  • Use internationally recognized standards for monitoring progress. Standards organizations have expertise in development of standards for all kinds of performance, including corporate behaviour and product behaviour, and most of them bring a great deal of credibility to the task. If no standards organization has a standard for the claim you wish to make think twice about whether you are selecting the correct claim. If you are certain that you are then find a standards organization to develop an appropriate standard. Reputable global standards organizations include: the International Organization for Standardization and The Global Reporting Initiative. In Canada, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Group is a good starting place.
  • Make sure your claims are science based and commensurate with the benefit they provide. Many corporate claims are based on initiatives that solve one problem but create another. Make sure that yours do not fall into this category.  Nothing any one organization does is going to save the world but enough tiny complementary initiatives may make a small step in contributing to solution of the challenges we face.

In the months and years ahead much more attention is going to be paid to the environmental and social performance of companies, governments, and other organizations. Accusations of greenwashing will damage your reputation and cost your business money. Getting your environmental and social initiatives right in this new social environment is the only way to keep healthy the organization for which you are responsible.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

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