Practice What You Preach?

Greenwashing.  The mere mention of the word these days sends a chill down the spines of advertising agency executives, compels investor relations professionals to take cover under their desks, and condemns incoming media phone calls to the bowels of voicemail.  But does it have to be this way?  And what got us here in the first place?

While greenwashing has always been a public embarrassment for those companies who are named and shamed on conventional or social media, the stakes can now be much higher.   Today they may additionally be asked to defend their sustainability claims in a court of law.  Yesterday’s article in SeafoodSource discusses a class-action fraud lawsuit filed against US seafood chain Red Lobster.  The suit alleges that the company’s shrimp and lobster are sourced from farms and fisheries that don’t meet the high environmental standards which the company claims.  Not to ruin your lunch plans, but the suit alleges Red Lobster sources shrimp from Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and China who “engage in environmentally destructive practices, poor reporting of environmental data and standards, and overuse of antibiotics.”

The reality is that activists have raised their game and are pursuing legal (and accompanying monetary) remedies from companies who make sustainability claims but don’t walk their talk.  You may recall Delta Airlines was also recently sued for their claim of being “carbon-neutral,” in large part through their use of carbon offsets (a topic which admittedly demands an entire discussion of its own).  Legitimate questions have been raised about the true climate benefits of many of the offsets purchased by Delta and other companies, leading to criticism of those same companies’ sustainability claims.  Regulators are also moving in on companies airing misleading advertising about their sustainability efforts (again most commonly around climate-related claims).

So what’s the takeaway here?  Most companies have already become much more conservative in their sustainability claims, and I would agree with that approach – the risk/return tradeoff of making questionable claims is increasingly unfavourable.  That said, companies must continue their efforts to reduce their own operational GHG emissions and make progress in achieving their other sustainability targets.  Those who set ambitious yet achievable sustainability goals and implement a credible plan of action to meet those goals will avoid accusations of greenwashing (and any associated litigation), earn the right to share that real progress with the world and benefit from the approval of their many stakeholders.  To me, that’s a win-win-win.

So come on out from under that desk.  It’s ok to jump back in the ocean – the water is fine.  Just be careful of the lobster claws.  They can leave a mark.

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