My recent post on greenwashing was satirical, but beneath the parody are some serious issues.
There’s a significant challenge here. The widespread adoption of greenwashing means many people are highly critical of ‘green’ claims from companies – and of course, they should be. But frequent abuse means there’s a wider more corrosive cynicism, fed by a much deeper global crisis in trust.
The challenge for organisations setting out their sustainability/ESG approaches when they are early on their journey with little track record, is how do they ensure their approach is different to another company’s shallow, incremental approach?
A key difference is intent. Whatever your starting point (and progress to date) why are you doing this?
- are you heading on the sustainability journey because you want to improve, reduce your negative impacts and head for a positive future/or;
- are you jumping on the green bandwagon because everyone else is and not being on is now looking a little out of place?
If sustainable intent is important – how can we differentiate good intent from bad?
The answer of course is we can’t necessarily – at least not in the short term. Various ratings schemes create external ESG measures, but these are not comparable with each other, use few if any external standards and tend to use proxy measures for sustainability activity rather than sustainability performance per se (see Bloomberg Newsweek’s ESG Mirage and how some of this might change if ESG reporting grows up).
That’s why best practice in sustainability requires commitments that look like commitments, followed swiftly by evidence of performance. Then we have something concrete by which to judge stated intent.
Commitments must match the stated level of intent or ambition. And they must deal with the scale of the social and environmental challenges relevant to your organisation – that’s why context-based approaches (such as science-based targets initiative for carbon) based upon a critical focus on MATERIALITY, are critical. It’s no longer good enough (in fact it never was) to be best in class if that best is woefully deficient by any decent external measure.
Performance – must over time demonstrate ongoing progress on material impacts, reducing harm and heading towards positive contributions. There should be an emphasis on developing shared value across the stakeholder communities that the organisation impacts upon and is dependent upon.
The challenge therefore for many organisations newly keen to jump on the ‘green’ bandwagon is that while good intent is already a step above common practice, it is insufficient on its own. It must be accompanied by well planned and executed strategy including firm commitments. Meeting these commitments requires gearing up for the changes needed to achieve them. That can’t be done at the press of a button or simply by investing some money. It needs the commitment of leadership and the core business apparatus.