10 November 2021
Marc Cornelius

an end to greenwashing: COP26

In the lead up to the COP26 climate change conference there was much sensitivity and scepticism about the role of business in reducing emissions. However, since the summit kicked off last week, it has been loosely named ’Business COP‘, with major companies announcing significant steps to lessen their environmental impact and fund the development of green technologies. As specialists in industries particularly in the environmental spotlight, we welcome these positive changes and hope they sound the death knell for the making of exaggerated sustainability claims.

The term ‘greenwashing’, officially recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as long ago as 1999, refers to environmental sharp practice: either making false or exaggerated claims about the eco virtues of a product, service or business, or worse still, employing underhand methods to skew debate and obscure facts.

What may in the past have struck some as a viable reputational strategy is today seen as foolish and downright irresponsible. Consumers are becoming savvy to greenwashing. Any companies playing this game are highly likely to be exposed and risk public humiliation and costly brand damage: witness Green Inc, the BBC’s current month-long series of satirical greenwashing reporting.

The temptation to greenwash or, more commonly, drag one’s feet on improving sustainable conduct, has been obvious. Making positive environmental change is difficult and almost certainly costs money, two things that run contrary to the traditional corporate mindset.

However, in a market economy, businesses respond to signals and incentives, and these are now making the need for real change inescapable:

  • Customers are increasingly showing their environmental preferences with their buying habits, which is helping drive some hugely exciting new products and services in aviation, travel and mobility. For example, it is hard not to watch the progress of Lilium and other advanced air mobility pioneers with excitement, while online shopping is about to become much greener with the launch of EV delivery vans from Arrival, Volta Trucks and others.
  • Institutional investors, to whom boards must always listen, are increasingly favouring companies with strong sustainability propositions (not least because they tend to be better run companies in the wider sense).
  • Governments are an essential source of motivation through fiscal policy. Here, there are notable successes (witness Tesla’s explosive UK sales growth, helped by UK consumer tax breaks) and many more missed opportunities (stimulating the faster production and take-up of Sustainable Aviation Fuel being a prime example). Hopefully, following today’s COP26 Transport focus some fresh progress may occur.

Many businesses have a desire to change but a limited understanding of how to achieve this. Almost every business can become more sustainable, but the right goals, strategies and measurement vary widely between organisations. Company leaders need expert advice to meet these needs and safeguard their reputational ‘licence to operate’. However, like lorry drivers, proven sustainability managers are currently in short supply.

It is for this reason that in 2021 we launched a sustainability communications service in collaboration with Terrafiniti, a sustainability management consultancy. By combining deep environmental expertise with pragmatism, Terrafiniti helps companies achieve substantive change in ways that are appropriate, manageable and therefore achievable. Our clients can therefore discuss their sustainability with stakeholders confidently and better position themselves to find growth opportunities whilst ensuring they continue to reduce their environmental impact.

To paraphrase the old joke about insurance, if you think acting sustainability is expensive, try not doing it.

Marc Cornelius

Founder and CEO

Article Author Marc Cornelius