Why we can’t stop talking about greenwashing

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Greenwashing, cont.

Joel Makower
January 17, 2023

 

Everywhere I look these days there’s greenwashing. Not necessarily actual greenwashing. I’m talking about the word itself.

It’s everywhere, from media missives to activist accusations to regulatory remedies on both sides of the Atlantic. There are academic papers, investor research reports, conference sessions and no small number of online rants in which the G-word is tossed around with abandon.

And whenever the word comes up, there seems to be general head nodding and handwringing: Greenwashing? Of course! It’s a huge problem, and we need to do something about it!

It would appear that greenwashing is one of the great ills of our day.

But is it? That’s an open question. It’s also the topic of my column this week, too long to reprint here in its entirety, aside from the brief excerpt below, which links to the full piece.

Longtime readers know that I’ve been pondering this question for years. I’ve asked, “Is greenwashing really as bad a problem as some are making it out to be?” (in 2008); questioned the findings of an iconic report at the time called “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” (in 2009); and made the case that the biggest greenwashers may actually be consumers (in 2010). More recently, I asked whether “greenwash” is the new “fake news” (in 2021); looked at “greenhushing,” in which companies avoid talking about sustainability altogether (in 2022); and even offered up a satiric set of tips on “how to greenwash like a pro” (also 2022).

But the more I’ve written on the topic, the less clear I’ve become about how greenwashing should be defined, how that definition seems to be shifting and how much of a problem it really is.

My topline conclusion: There’s a whole lotta corporate hyperbole going on, but roughly an equal amount of reticence by companies to talk about their sustainability commitments, goals and achievements. Much of the hyperbole stems from companies’ genuine desire to be seen as a leader, or at least a player, in addressing sustainability challenges, without not necessarily giving ample thought about how they communicate those messages.

I’m not alone in being confused. Just last week, Bloomberg reported in an article about the legal definition of greenwashing: “Nobody knows for sure, and that’s causing some big regulatory problems.” It quoted a financial analyst: “The battle to stamp out greenwashing continues to be foiled by the lack of a clear and common definition across jurisdictions.”

I couldn’t agree more.

 

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