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The ESG Review: The communication challenge of treading the thin green line

If you work in corporate communications or in the ESG field, it will not have escaped your notice that the scourge of greenwashing has been on the rise, and that legislators have it firmly in their sights.

In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen stories about UK businesses facing fines over misleading environmental claims, about an EU clampdown on greenwashing in bond markets and Tesco facing a backlash over teabag labelling.

But we’ve also seen the accusations and inferences move beyond greenwashing itself - to green this, green that, and green what-have-you.

As we’ve pointed to in this column before, the very prefix green can draw criticism over attempts to deflect, mislead or - worse - outright lie.

This Edie piece on the recent report by the think tank Planet Tracker outlined six types of greenwashing - arguably, separate genres of reputation misdemeanour altogether - that are now doing the rounds:

  • Greencrowding: the notion that ‘hiding in a crowd’ of corporations can mask environmental harm being caused
  • Greenshifting: deflecting the ‘blame’ up our down the value chain, typically towards consumers for their purchasing behaviour
  • Greenlighting: shining a spotlight on environmental credentials while leaving environmental ills in the shadows
  • Greenrinsing: altering environmental goals before the original ones have been achieved. Otherwise perhaps known as greengoalpostmoving
  • Greenhushing: under-reporting or obfuscating sustainability data to avoid stakeholder scrutiny

With the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) greenwashing investigating underway, its own Green Claims Code is a good navigation tool for avoiding falling foul of either hard and fast rules or public expectations.

But when you look at the list above, it’s not much of a stretch to say that these are techniques which corporate communicators have employed across broader business credentials forever. Some can clearly be ethically questionable depending on the circumstances, even moreso today. Equally, few communicators would say that they’ve always opted for full and even disclosure of performance versus pointing publicly to the most positive aspects, or never set criticism in context of competitors or a market sector overall.

You’d be a fool not to, within reason.

So where does washing, rinsing, or other forms of reputation laundry stop and acceptable ‘pointing to the positives’ begin? A claims code and tougher regulatory stance may inform that, but can companies ever be expected to be utterly matter-of-fact about their environmental impact and transition, and remain competitive in fast-shifting markets?

Probably not. We surely aren’t going to see greentargeting, greenstirring, greenbriefing or greenenthusiasm added to the sin list.

There is, of course, a clear principle here: companies should not seek to mislead, regardless of where the law or broader sanctions stand.

But while the current probing analysis of green claims has to be welcomed, we are also going to have to get to a point where fair and reasonable language and communications practices for sharing positive progress on

environmental harm reduction, and outlining the direct impact of products and services, become accepted rather than throttled.

Because if not, stymied communication will ultimately slow the positive progress that many businesses are working to make.

The ESG News Review is written by Steve Earl, a Partner at BOLDT.

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