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Is greenwashing always the case?

We call out for greenwashing every other day, but how do we distinguish between poor intentions and imperfect outcome?

As we all know by now, sustainability is one the most complex, articulated and challenging definitions out there. Why? For one thing, because it’s applicability is potentially infinite.

Can you define what sustainability is? I mean in your every day life, despite the well-known definition of meeting today’s need without compromising tomorrow’s.


Let’s say you buy a certified organic cotton t-shirt. Would you describe it as a sustainable choice? It depends on how many factors you choose to value, as the layers you can unfold are infinite.

How much water was used to grow that fiber? How was it dyed? Under which working conditions?

Does the brand have an inclusivity program in place? Do they have a training program for local communities?

How was the product transported? Truck? Airplane? How were these fueled? Are you gonna wear it just a couple times? How will you wash it? And dry it? Does it need special care? Can it be recycled? Does the brand have a take-back program? How much do they produce?

Are they promoting overconsumption through their eco-friendly claims?

We could go on and on. The complexity is enormous.

So, how many of these boxes need to be checked in order to define the t-shirt as a sustainable choice? And what about if we were to claim that an entire organization is? But most importantly, who gets to decide which of these factors should be taken into account?

Pretty much everyone and no one since these things are mostly still unregulated. As of today, there is no universal certification program which defines the sustainability of a product. Similarly, companies can use international standards, such as ISO or GRI, to guide them through their ESG reporting but there are no obligations or legal requirements in place.

Given then that externalities involved are countless, companies focus on what’s more relevant to their business, stakeholders and purpose, defining their own materiality. What about what’s left out?

Greenwashing is real

Greenwashing exists, it’s real. Companies profit from people’s current sensitivity about sustainability, often taking advantage of their unawareness by covering an absence of commitment and noble purpose with glossy, empty marketing.

Vague and misleading claims are used to win customers and gain competitive advantage taking the short road. How do you spot that? Be aware, ask questions and challenge the status quo.

Now, are all companies accused of greenwashing actually revealing false, misleading and partial information? Are we maybe instead accusing them of not doing enough, being fast enough or sustainable enough? Are we judging them for their legacy?

While intentional greenwashing is deceiving and despicable, small steps towards sustainability are praiseworthy. In fact, we can’t forget that we all start from somewhere and sustainability is a path rather than a destination. Remember the complexity we talked about before? Same thing applies here. Complex things usually have complex answers.

Some companies were pioneers and have been leading the way for decades acquiring know-how and reputation. Having sustainability at the core of their purpose. But unfortunately, not all of them are Patagonia, and some are just getting started. And stumbling. By the way shouldn’t we push for governments to finally regulate this? Until then companies, even if well intended, will always run the risk of being labeled as greenwasher.

How can we, in the meantime, distinguish between bad intentions and imperfect outcome? Where lies the difference?

For one, in the communication. Can you communicate small victories without being accused? The key once again is honesty and transparency. Share the whole picture, issues and imperfections included, and be ready for some movement.

Finally, maybe it’s not even about how big the change is nor how much is left to do, but rather how honest the commitment is.

A straw case

In 2018 McDonald’s switches their plastic straws to paper ones throughout the entire UK, for a total impact of 1.8 million straws a day. The food giant is immediately accused of greenwashing as their business is based on a high-impact ingredient: meat. Shortly after, it comes out that, due to a design error, the praised paper straws are not recyclable and thus not so eco-friendly.

Where did the greenwashing happen here? Is it because McDonald’s sells meat? Or rather because the straw project was not duly tested and honestly developed to benefit the environment? If done thoughtfully though, couldn’t it be a small step towards sustainability? 

Are we influenced by the legacy of these giant corporations? Wasn’t the initial accusation rather moved by the “not doing enough and fast enough” concept?

I am far from defending a fast-food chain here. They are definitely not my favorite guys, I don’t know the whole picture and, mostly, I am not here to play the Judge.

But, this space is dedicated to thinking.

As for everything which involves sustainability, the answer too is complex and debatable. But questioning and looking for different angles is always worth it.

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