What You Need to Know about Greenwashing

Environmental issues are rarely out of the news these days with more and more people rapidly becoming aware of the role we each play in using (and sometimes abusing), the planet’s resources. Accepting this ethical imperative means we expect businesses to uphold these principles, too.

However, in a rush to be perceived as green, some corporations are jumping on the bandwagon with policies that will help them claim greenness. From introducing schemes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to opening wind-turbine-powered branches, businesses worldwide are scrambling to be seen as socially responsible.

Greenwashing Beware
Enter the phenomenon of Greenwashing: It has been around for longer than we might think, but is only now being seen in such overt ways. Greenwashing is the unjustified claim by an organization, government or individual to create a pro-environmental image in order to sell products, services or policies. This increase of greenwashing has caused great concern, triggering me to lead a UK steering group to produce Environment Sustainability Guidelines for communication, due for issue by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in March 2008.

Following are several methods to identify greenwashing:
1.    Third party cover. Companies seeking to hide their anti-environmental actions may use industry associates to carry out such activities for them. In- depth research can reveal such associations so it is worth doing background investigation.  
2.    Paper trails. Check whether there have been any submissions or requests made as part of the company’s ongoing activities. These will give you an indication of where the company is seeking to develop activity and whether environmental consequences have been taken into account.
3.     Information accessibility. Companies are quick to shout about their transparency, don’t just take them at their word. Ask to see their environmental reports and any information you want.
4.    Consistency. Operating standards differ worldwide. Check to see that the company you are looking at is consistent in its policies in other countries it operates in, or if it opts for lower standards where it can.
5.     Long-term focus. Organizations will occasionally launch an initiative simply to create a fuss and gain media attention and then starve it of financial support needed to progress it. Find out if attention still remains on the issue once the spotlight had moved.

This article is written by James Wright, director of CSR at Trimedia.This piece is currently featured in PR News 2008 Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibilty, Volume 2. To order a copy or get more information, please visit http://www.prnewsonline.com/store/9.html