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Have you been greenwashed today?

Within society, attitudes are changing and consumers are ever more discerning when it comes to the products they buy.  High on the list of priorities is the need for goods and services to be “environmentally friendly”.  With this in mind, today I took notice of all the environmental messages that I came across.  I visited the South African Airways website, which has a flash “advert” on its home page saying “click here to read more about SAA and the environment”.   In Woolworths I noticed a prominently-displayed rack of clothes manufactured from “South Africa’s first organic cotton crop”.  And right in front of me as I write – on my laptop computer – is a blue sticker saying “Energy Star”.

Those are just 3 examples of various products and services showing some level of commitment to being “green” and “environmentally friendly”.  But how do we interrogate what these claims actually mean?  How can we be sure that we are not just being “greenwashed”,  that producers and service providers are not just making hollow claims to appeal to our environmental conscience?  The first point on SAA’s website indicates “we operate one of the youngest, most efficient fleets in the world” – a statement that is intuitively good, as we all know that increasing resource efficiency is a way of reducing our adverse environmental impacts.  Similarly we all intuitively believe that organic is good for us – but how much better is it?  Organic cotton is produced without the direct application of fertilisers and insecticides – but what if this is the first year that no inputs have been applied, and the soil still contains the remnants of last year’s application?  What on earth does the blue “Energy Star” sticker mean?!

What I am getting at here is that in this information age we need to constantly question the information with which we are provided.  One of the main ways for companies to ensure credibility of their environmental claims is to sign up to service marques or benchmarks, which set transparent and objective verifiable standards.  The next paragraph on SAA’s environment webpage cites that they support the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) voluntary call for member airlines to increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions – and based on the IATA checklist they already have 80% compliance.  For cotton to be classified as organic in South Africa, in fact fields must have had less than a certain amount of inputs applied for a certain number of years before they can be certified as organic.  And the “Energy Star” logo is also a service marque – this one was created by two US bodies – the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy – and can only be displayed by goods that are objectively tested as among the most energy efficient within their category.

So to avoid “greenwashing” we need to ensure that we take our judgement that one step further and make sure claims are backed up.  Of course the next step is to apply our acumen to the validity of the service marques – but I’ll save that for next time!  And, as a business, if you don’t want to bee guilty of “greenwashing” then make sure you understand what sustainability as and can back up your claims by complying with objective, verifiable standards.

To find out more about sustainability and your business, click here.

Kulima Solutions is a specialist Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility Consultancy whose principals are:

Katharine Vincent, BA Hons. (Oxford), MREs (University of East Anglia), PhD (University of East Anglia)
Email:  katharine.vincent@gmail.com, Phone: 072 1964525.

Tracy Cull, B. Soc. Sci. Hons (University of Natal, Durban)
Email: tracymcull@gmail.com, Phone: 082 820 6608


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