Business Sustainability

Countering Greenwash Through Trustworthy Climate Initiatives

We clarify what greenwashing means and offer some top tips for how to counter it.

Companies across the globe are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of embracing sustainability. We recently wrote about the 5 key business benefits that sustainability can bring. As consumers and businesses become more aware of the importance of their purchases and new environmental legislation is implemented, the pressure to demonstrate and report the impact of sustainability initiatives is greater than ever. But how can businesses do this effectively, launching trustworthy climate initiatives and avoiding accusations of greenwashing?

What does greenwashing mean?

‘Greenwashing’ was coined back in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in an essay that he wrote following his stay in a hotel. This hotel claimed to be ‘sustainable’ because it was washing its towels less frequently. But Westerveld noticed wasteful practices throughout the establishment, which clearly showed that sustainability wasn’t high on the agenda. In fact, it became evident that the hotel was merely trying to reduce costs by not washing its towels so often.

So in a nutshell, the practice of greenwashing generally refers to misinformation provided by a business to falsely present itself as environmentally friendly.

How does greenwashing happen?

Greenwashing often happens as a result of a lack of knowledge on the part of business leaders and management teams, and can lead to what is known as ‘unintentional greenwashing’. Many businesses don’t have the in-house expertise which would allow them to measure their emissions and to reduce the environmental impact of their activities, and they rely on external measurement bodies or climate tech partners, some of whom have not been thoroughly vetted. Often, management teams simply don’t know what questions they should be asking as part of their due diligence process — all of which results in ineffective sustainability strategies.

One example of unintentional greenwashing is IKEA, which, according to an environmental NGO, had used unsustainably harvested wood in products which it had labelled as being ‘sustainable’. The lumber, which had also been illegally felled, had entered the supply chain via corrupt state-owned forestry enterprises in Ukraine and had circumvented a number of safeguards put in place by IKEA’s external, trusted partners. The company, which is the largest consumer of wood in the world, has responded by thoroughly reviewing its safeguarding system for all materials used in its products.

Four key tips for implementing a trustworthy climate strategy

Businesses have a vital role to play in reducing our global carbon footprint, and every effective sustainability journey should begin with accurately measuring your emissions — which is also a key way to counter greenwashing. Below, we give you our four key tips for implementing a transparent climate strategy.

1. Accurately measure and share the impact of your activities

The most important way to avoid misleading customers and stakeholders is to ground your measurements and reduction activity in data. The three most commonly used ways of measuring your emissions are to hire an in-house team, work with an external consultancy, or use a climate tech partner, who offers a more efficient and scalable approach.

If you choose to go down the latter route, make sure that you conduct your due diligence. Ask your prospective climate tech partner about the emissions factors that they use. That way, you’ll be able to check that they are making their calculations based on a reliable source. Emissions factors come from multiple sources. For example in transportation and logistics, the GLEC framework is the de facto standard, and there are specific standards and calculation methodologies subject to the area of activity.

While there are multiple ways to calculate carbon footprint, not all methodologies are robust and can be trusted. Being able to verify the source of the calculation conducted by your climate tech partner is essential.

2. Have clearly defined targets

Be realistic when you’re making ‘net zero’ claims, and understand the differences in terminology. For example, there is an important distinction between your company being ‘carbon neutral’ and going ‘net zero.’ Being ‘carbon neutral’ means that the amount of carbon that you’re emitting is equal to the amount of carbon that you’re absorbing from the atmosphere. In practice, this means that you should be going through the three stages of measuring your emissions, reducing them, and then offsetting those emissions that you’re unable to reduce. ‘Net zero’ is a similar concept to being ‘carbon neutral’ but it takes into account all greenhouse gas emissions, rather than just carbon dioxide.

There will be some companies that will be able to eliminate all sources of carbon emissions from their operations, and in doing so, achieve what is known as ‘Absolute Zero.’ However, the majority of companies are unable to do so and rely on offsetting to meet their carbon targets.

Once you have set your targets, transparency is key. Make sure that you are regularly communicating with your stakeholders on how you’re doing against the goals that you’ve set for yourself, and that you’re sharing data to back up your claims.

3. Adopt a holistic approach

If you’ve made the decision to commit to sustainability, make sure that your strategy encompasses all areas of your business. You’ll have limited impact if you’re addressing your emissions in one particular area, but ignoring others.

At the same time, avoid giving stakeholders the impression that your service or company has a positive environmental impact by leaving out the negatives. It’s deceitful to state that a product is recyclable if only certain parts of it are. Likewise, it isn’t correct to say that a business is ‘sustainable’ due to improvements made to a particular service line, if you’re masking negative impacts in your supply chain.

4. Build clarity and transparency into your processes

As a company, you have an obligation to your consumers and partners to live up to every claim that you make. When it comes to carbon footprint measurement, you cannot say something that is factually incorrect or exaggerate the impact of your carbon reduction activities. If you’re found out, the backlash could be huge, and could impact your brand reputation in the long term. That’s why being transparent about your carbon footprint measurement, and the impact of your sustainability activities is paramount.

Take the first step on your sustainability journey today

Unless you’ve chosen to measure your emissions in house, it’s worth finding a trusted climate tech partner. They can give you peace of mind that you’re accurately measuring your carbon footprint and understanding your top emitters. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to take effective climate action, meet regulatory demands and share the impact of your activity with stakeholders. Take a look here for a more detailed list of the questions to ask a climate tech partner before you begin working with them.