March 20, 2023
Written by
Meg Candler

Don’t fall into the greenwishing trap

Though many large companies over the years have been accused of laundering their public reputations through a process known as “greenwashing”, a new threat to social and environmental action has emerged as customer and investor literacy on ESG has increased. In this article we look at the threat that this “greenwishing” poses to the planet and our communities, and how organisations can take the alternative route of evidence-based action.

Pressure mounts on greenwashers

At COP27 in November 2022, the UN’s High-Level Expert Group on the Net Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities launched their Integrity Matters report. 

In it, they call for urgent action on the climate crisis, with the UN Secretary General commenting that "We urgently need every business, investor, state and region to walk the talk on their net zero promises. We cannot afford slow movers, fake movers or any form of greenwashing."

Concerns about "greenwashing" – where organisations represent their mission, products, practices, and/or services as more environmentally-friendly than they are in reality – have mounted as the environmental crisis worsens. 

Many large organisations are responding to calls for more sustainable business practices with increased measurement and public pledges, doubling down on affirming their commitments to future improvement, but making little progress today. 

As our CEO Mark Perera put it:

“Whilst it’s important to understand that absolute emissions might go up before they come down, what is not acceptable is the claim that measurement equates to action. Currently, over 80% of global emissions are covered by net-zero pledges, and yet we are peering over the precipice of 1.5 degrees warming. The claims that these emissions are under management is greenwashing, and that has to be rooted out and turned into real, tangible action.”

In addition to demanding concrete action from large organisations, the Integrity Matters report called for increased pressure, scrutiny, and regulation from governments on these corporate emitters, arguing that “non-state actors need to move from voluntary initiatives to regulated requirements for net zero” and suggesting “mandatory annual progress reporting” for “large corporate emitters.”

What is greenwashing? 

A portmanteau of “green” (meaning sustainable) and “whitewash” (meaning to cover up or conceal), greenwashing is a term used to describe the practice of companies making exaggerated or false claims about the environmental credentials of their operations, products, or services in order to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, investors, and other stakeholders.

The claims made by greenwashing organisations are frequently flimsy and lack a solid evidence base, often relying on deliberately vague or non-committal wording such as “eco-friendly”, “naturally derived” or “ethically sourced” in order to present the organisation in a positive light. 

Some organisations, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, have established guidelines for environmental marketing claims to help consumers make informed decisions and combat greenwashing. 

Greenwashing vs. greenwishing

As regulators mobilise further in response to increasing pressure from the likes of the UN, the environmental claims of enterprise organisations especially will be under increased scrutiny.

But many of these organisations don’t fall into the “deliberate deception” category contained under the “greenwashing” banner, and total ignorance of environmental concerns has been dwindling over recent years. Instead, the majority of large organisations would fall into a category known as “greenwishing.”

What is greenwishing?

The term greenwishing was coined by writer and long-time sustainability professional Duncan Austin in his 2019 paper “Greenwish: The Wishful Thinking Undermining the Ambition of Sustainable Business”.

In the paper, he distinguishes between greenwashing and what he terms greenwishing: 

“From the outset, the sustainable business movement has confronted instances of so-called greenwash, in which companies promote token but well-publicised sustainability initiatives to divert attention from environmentally damaging core businesses they have no intention of changing. Such efforts are relatively easy to expose because of their small scale and underlying cynicism. 

Twenty years on, we may now be facing a new affliction of greenwish – the earnest hope that well intended efforts to make the world more sustainable are much closer to achieving the necessary change than they really are. This unsought condition may prove every bit as harmful as greenwash, and possibly harder to unpick, because it is more widespread and arises mainly from good intentions.” 

Greenwishing and ESG measurement

In the essay, he touches specifically on one of the key “well-intended efforts”: “the ongoing allocation of energy to reporting and disclosing.”

Austin situates this fanaticism for measurement and ESG disclosures into the wider greenwishing challenge by comparing it to actual, concrete change:

“The enthusiasm for reporting and disclosure strategies epitomizes a broader challenge: sustainable corporations are directed by business norms towards showcasing, and seeking credit for, their own piecemeal efforts rather than towards collaborating for the system change now required”

His concern is one we share. Many of the professionals we speak to are genuinely well-intentioned – they are values-driven individuals who believe firmly in making positive changes to our business operations. 

Yet most of their organisations fall firmly into the category of “greenwishing”, characterised by an overwhelming focus on far-off targets, data collection, disclosure, and measurement. Compared to the effort invested to “run the numbers”, there is comparatively little focus on detailed strategy, or what evidence-based actions the organisation will take with their suppliers in order to achieve those goals by the date specified. We have talked about this “analysis paralysis” extensively elsewhere. 

What is evidence-based action?

Simply put, evidence-based action is concrete progress that can be proven. It is the highest level of maturity on ESG issues. 

Distinguished from greenwishing by its focus on pragmatism, decisiveness, and provability, evidence-based action is the way that organisations will not only make strides towards their ESG goals in the short- and medium-term, but also how they will prove it. 

At its core, evidence-based action is work on ESG goals which can be scrutinised, fact-checked, ratified, or audited:

It relies on organisations embracing robustness and rigour at every stage of their sustainability journey. 

When it comes to sustainable procurement and supplier sustainability – the key concerns of procurement and supply chain professionals – this rigour must be applied to three key areas: 

  • People enablement (including educating, upskilling, and incentivising internal and external stakeholders effectively)
  • Robust processes (including clear accountability and governance models, systematised and repeatable supplier management processes that are regularly reviewed, and clear lines of communication)
  • Enabling technology (including functionality beyond measurement that facilitates close collaboration with supplier stakeholders in a manner that is traceable, transparent, and centralised). 

Get our free RFP template and guide to source evidence-based solutions, better:

Given that the majority of corporate sustainability impact sits not within the proprietary operations of enterprise businesses but in their supply chain, enterprise organisations must focus on sourcing technology solutions that both enable them to effectively engage and collaborate with supplier stakeholders on sustainability, measure their progress, and prove their results.

But in a confusing market of “climate tech”, “sustainable procurement tech” and “sustainability tech” solutions, it’s difficult to draw up a list of requirements. 

To take some of the hard work out of sourcing enabling technology, we’ve created this free toolkit for your next supplier sustainability RFP. 

In it, you’ll find an Excel spreadsheet template RFP that we’ve compiled from the best of the best inbound RFPs we’ve received from other large enterprise organisations. We’ve also provided an additional RFP guide of our own which goes into each of the functionality areas in more detail to provide you with further support sourcing solutions that will enable evidence-based ESG action. 

Get your free RFP toolkit today.

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