Are you in danger of greenwashing?

Greenwashing has become something of a buzzword for sustainability in the past few years and not for the right reasons. The term is used to describe a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing techniques are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organisation’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly. It’s a hot topic at the moment, following recent research in a peer-reviewed scientific journal that found several leading oil companies guilty of greenwashing. The study found a sharp rise in mentions of “climate”, “low-carbon” and “transition” in annual reports in recent years and increasing pledges of action in strategies. However, concrete actions were rare.


The start of a dangerous trend

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the term greenwashing was born. It is often stated that environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term in 1986 in a critical essay inspired by the irony of the “save the towel” movement in hotels. Whilst staying at a resort, Westerveld saw a note asking customers to pick up their towels, stating that oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage. However, that was not the real reason for asking guests to pick up their towels. They merely wanted people to stop stealing them to reduce funds needed for replacements.

While many instances of greenwashing are less obvious, the practice still exists in the corporate world and is not helped by the fact that environmental reporting standards still differ from industry-to-industry and region-to-region. In a lot of cases, greenwashing is not even a deliberate action, but one caused by confusion and misunderstanding.

How do you accidentally greenwash? According to Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand, and that figure increases to 73% among millennials. Businesses are aware that customers today have an interest in preserving biodiversity and protecting the environment. The Paris Agreement and UN’s Sustainability Development Goals have put more a focus on sustainability than ever before and this has prompted businesses to do the same.

However, when shouting about sustainability credentials, it’s important to consider your footprint across the organisation before starting to drop buzz words or empty claims into your marketing. For example, if you’re manufacturing a new energy-saving lightbulb, you might be tempted to talk about your eco-products; but are they really eco products if they are made in a factory that heavily pollutes rivers? Is the electric vehicle you are manufacturing really that environmentally friendly if you are flying in the parts from the other side of the world? While one element of your business may be sustainable, it could well be cancelled out by another; meaning you are no more ‘green’ than when you started.


Importance of Net Positive

Greenwashing occurs when business focus too much on trying to be less bad, or simply reducing their environmental footprint. However, this is not enough in today’s world. For a business to truly be sustainable, it must transition towards a Net Positive business model. This describes a new way of doing business which puts back more into society, the environment and the global economy than it takes out. Organisations that take a Net Positive approach back up their statements and genuinely practice their green values.

Going beyond zero means being regenerative and putting more resources back into the planet than you take out in order to achieve a net positive effect. There’s no doubt that all businesses impact the environment and society in one way or another; be it negatively or positively. To become net positive, the positive impact must outweigh the negative or in other words; the planet and society must benefit more by having these businesses than if they did not exist at all.


How do I embed Net Positive into my business and avoid greenwashing?

In the net positive framework, businesses must become regenerative: providing restorative and positive impacts on people, planet, and society.

This can only be achieved by embedding regenerative values into your organisation and focusing on living and breathing what you speak, rather than focusing on the ‘less-bad’ elements of your business.

At Wylde, we consider all elements of your company’s sustainability footprint in our assessment programmes, to advise areas for improvement and help businesses avoid greenwashing. The modern world needs truly sustainable companies and as we strive towards net positive outcomes, appearing green is not the same to customers as genuinely being green.

If you are interested in starting your sustainability journey with Wylde today, send us an email to

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