Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a big conference of financiers on the topic of greenwashing and climate. Here’s what I told them:
The good news: Greenwashing as we know it is out. For the most part, private sector climate commitments are not greenwashing. They are important, ambitious, and genuine, and they offer more potential for progress than any other initiatives now underway.
The bad news: That doesn’t mean corporate climate commitments are going to save the day. As much as I appreciate these voluntary efforts — and we all should — they won’t be sufficient to achieve meaningful progress, especially in the near-term, unless they are backed by more robust government regulation and public policy. This is a big deal because time is of the essence!
The consequence: We still urgently need to come together and engage in some old fashioned organizing and advocacy work. The highest priority for all climate advocates — including, but not only, private sector climate leaders — is to lobby for improved public policy. We need more and better regulations, mandates, and incentives.
Not your parents greenwashing
Environmental critics of corporate climate commitments tend to dismiss them as “greenwashing,” i.e., “a form of marketing spin in which green PR and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly.”
But I don’t think there is significant greenwashing of this type happening anymore. Of course, there are always some bad actors who engage in deceptive practices, and I have no problem naming and shaming those who do. But let’s not get distracted by a relatively minor problem caused by a small minority when there’s so much important work to be done that will actually advance the cause.
And, in today’s very transparent world, it’s really hard to get away with anything for very long — the villains will likely end up being outed either way. (So business people considering greenwashing, take note: your plan is very unlikely to work.)
While there may not be as much intentional deception going on, when we look at the overall state of corporate climate action, there may be a new, more insidious kind of greenwashing underway — not ill intentioned but harmful nonetheless. Encouraged by all the highly visible business discourse and activity aimed at climate progress, advocates might be lulled into complacency, concluding that somehow the private sector alone can get the job done. That would be a big mistake.