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Greenwashing: why does it happen?

Notes On Whiteboard

There’s a question I’ve started thinking about a worrying amount. For years and years, I’ve been perfectly comfortable not giving it much thought at all.  Yet now, here it is again, popping back up into my head without prompting. So given that they say ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’, I’m writing this now in the hope that involving you might rid me of this turbulent beast (or at least half of it). 

To cut to the chase, I can’t stop thinking about how greenwash happens?  You know, that thing where companies put out statements or roll out initiatives that present themselves as environmentally and/or socially responsible, without there necessarily being sufficient thought or substance behind what they’re saying.  

More specifically, I’m struggling to get my head round why would any perfectly successful, ambitious, customer-centric, and otherwise rational business go public with a sustainability initiative that throws them open to rightful public criticism?  After all, businesses tend to scrutinise and carefully evaluate everything they launch publicly to the nth degree.  Greenwash shouldn’t happen in that environment.  Yet it does. 

Now, there is one obvious, immediate answer: “they’re wrong uns, Andrew!”. And there will always be some bad actors in any situation (yes, fossil fuel companies and their financiers – I’m looking at you, among others). 

But I don’t actually believe that most businesses, or the people within them, are ‘bad’.  On the contrary, I actually think most businesses and people are well meaning and well intentioned, alongside being ambitious and successful. I believe that most people would prefer that the organisation they worked for genuinely made a difference.  There surely can’t be enough deniers and liars out there to cause the current increasing deluge of greenwash, can there? 

But if that’s the case, then it’s even more perplexing how greenwash can happen. 

That’s especially so for law firms and other players in the legal industry. After all, greenwashing should be an anathema for a lawyer, attuned to fairness, justice, honesty, ethics, integrity, doing the right thing, and trained and developed in identifying and mitigating risks.  Surely lawyers, of all people, should have a natural inbuilt caution against letting anything that doesn’t have substance behind it get put out there, into the wild, for public consumption? 

After turning the question over in my head far too many times for my own good, here’s my theory on how greenwashing happens with otherwise genuine, well-meaning businesses.  

To me, it comes down to one key failing, which gets to the heart of what I believe is the central spine on which every sustainability strategy should be built.  A business inadvertently greenwashes because of a failure to root their sustainability strategy, actions and efforts deeply in their specific business and business model.  

When looking at a sustainability initiative, the powers that be in those ‘greenwashing’ businesses haven’t stood back and looked at what they really do and where they do it from.  They haven’t thought about sustainability through the lens of what they’re all about, what their business exists for.  They haven’t tried to work out how they can seize and build upon who they are and what they do to really make a difference.  Instead, those organisations seem to have simply looked at whether the initiative feels like a ‘good thing’ or is something they ‘like’. 

But the problem with looking at a sustainability strategy, action or effort through that lens is that ‘good’ and ‘like’ are incredibly subjective.  Not everyone is going to see that thing in that light – some are even likely to come out with entirely the opposite view. As a result, the initiative is generally driven by whether the top management group – or more likely, the person at the very top – ‘like’ it and see it to be ‘good’. Whether it connects to the leader’s own personal passions or beliefs, rather than the organisation’s. 

That is not an insurmountable problem within that organisation itself.  There is a level of camaraderie and commonality across most people within an organisation, and so they can be brought on board with something, especially when its benefit or positives are loudly championed from the top.  

But that doesn’t work outside the organisation. Few people outside are drinking the business’s Kool Aid.  None of them are going to be remotely influenced, nevermind ‘brought on board’, by anything a CEO not named ‘Jobs’ or ‘Musk’ says. No-one outside the organisation is going to care about whether the CEO ‘likes’ it or be assuaged just because the business thinks it’s good.  

Instead, people outside the business are simply going to ask themselves ‘why is this organisation doing this’?  And if they can’t find a strong, substantive enough answer to that question they’re going to call it for what it is: greenwash.  A fancy marketing coat. Bullsh*t. Just as they should. And what was meant as a ‘good’ thing quickly becomes a negative, ‘bad’ thing that hits that organisation’s reputation hard. 

On the other hand though, if they see that the initiative connects obviously and strongly with the business in question, or even better that it takes the core of what the business does and uses it to make things better and make a substantive difference relative to the size of that company, that initiative will feel carefully considered, deeply connected, and most importantly genuine.   

Greenwashing doesn’t happen because of a technological impasse. It’s not because of a feasibility issue.  Instead, it just results from a lack of thinking. And a lack of thinking is the easiest thing to change, especially for lawyers who are paid for how they think. 

Treat sustainability like any other piece of work. Think it through. Approach it like a lawyer. Be forensic in analysing your ‘case’. Assess any proposals through the eyes of ‘what would the other side say’, rather than ‘doesn’t this sound good?’. Do your due diligence, look for hard evidence not hearsay.  And, ultimately, if it doesn’t stack up, then don’t put it forward.  

About the author

Andrew Magowan

Andrew is a down-to-earth, perceptive, influential and adaptable senior executive, with both deep cross-business and broad industry experience, particularly in companies that are growing globally from a UK base. He has been a GC/Legal Director; Co Sec in areas as diverse as online fashion retail (ASOS), fine wine & spirits (325-year-old Berry Bros. & Rudd), oil & gas services helicopters (Bristow Group Inc), and airport retailing (Alpha Group plc).

As you’d expect of a long-time General Counsel, he is highly experienced in pretty much anything ‘commercial’, with an exceptional understanding of where value really lies that delivers innovative, tailored, effective legal, risk  and reputation management, compliance and corporate governance. He enjoys finding out what makes an organisation tick, and using that to ensure that the business is successful in the short-term, while still remaining sustainable, enduring and robust over the long-term.

He is passionate about environmental and social responsibility, culture and business design, ethics, integrity and authenticity. He has a focus on the future, in the firm belief that they are all central to business success in a world where consumers are ever more engaged, demanding and empowered.