Worldwide, the pressure to move toward a clean, carbon-free future is stronger than ever. Today, “going green” is more than just a lofty idea—it’s becoming the very basis of how many companies do business.

According to a 2022 article in CNBC, corporate giants like Microsoft, Intuit, and Apple are examples of those leading the charge by committing to environmentally sustainable business practices. And those types of actions are being adopted not just by big corporations, but small businesses as well.

Consumers are also becoming more thoughtful about their purchases, seeking products or services that align more with their environmental stance. Yet, with clever packaging and language intended to appeal to an environmentally conscious audience, many companies may mislead consumers—whether intentional or not—into thinking they are more sustainable than they really are. Enter greenwashing.

Greenwashing: using a clean concept to cover a not-so-clean secret

Words matter—especially when those words convey a certain message about what a company stands for or how it operates. The use of words like “green,” “eco,” “sustainable,” “natural,” or “conscious” is rampant, but for some it’s not warranted, and is known as greenwashing.

Specifically, greenwashing is deceiving potential consumers into thinking a company’s products or services are environmentally friendly, but with no real proof to back those claims. Greenwashing can also include inflating the truth in a way that highlights one environmentally friendly aspect of a business to cover up for another, less eco-friendly aspect; for example, an oil company who installs solar panels on its gas stations[AS2]  but then continues to profit heavily from fossil fuels.

Raising the stakes

Although greenwashing is on the rise, so are the consequences of engaging in it. A recent survey shares several examples of litigation cases related to greenwashing—as well as the following specific advice:

Luckily, greenwashing can be avoided. According to earth.org, there are a number of ways to stay on the right side of promoting an environmentally friendly business, and it starts with honesty. One key step is avoiding vague language that cannot be proven. Another is being transparent about areas of the business that are sustainable and others that are not. Or presenting real data to measure the company’s carbon footprint and taking real action to make positive changes, and then sharing that information publicly.   

Eversheds Sutherland states, “One of the lessons to be taken from recent filings is that companies should avoid wide sweeping, broad statements about their sustainability efforts and should avoid advertisements focused solely on the end-product or service they provide. Like all claims for misrepresentation, the truth is the best defense. If a company can support concrete statements with concrete sustainability efforts and firm data, the better able they are to neutralize and defend the greenwashing claims that are now flooding the US litigation landscape.”

Telling the truth is further encouraged by the fact that consumers are becoming wise to greenwashing. Information is everywhere, and it’s easier than ever to confirm if a company is truly environmentally sustainable or not. Furthermore, the scandal caused by greenwashing can leave a permanent mark on a company’s reputation, and ultimately, their bottom line. 

Moving from green washing to the gold standard

Becoming a sustainable business can start small. An article by Inc. provides some helpful tips to begin this process, from replacing traditional light bulbs and eliminating plastic bottles in the office to engaging only with trusted green vendors. American Express offers further insight, such as conducting an environmental audit, repurposing or redesigning products, and rewarding environmentally conscious behavior.

But to truly get to the next level of becoming a sustainable, green business, next-level changes need to occur. It requires a concerted effort by a company’s top leaders and permeates down and throughout the organization, with the ultimate goal of generating sustainable changes at scale and having a real impact on staff, consumers, and the environment.

Creating a green culture

The first step in creating a truly green business is to create a green culture. To accomplish this, leaders must determine what it means to be an environmentally conscious business, and how that affects employees, customers, and the planet as a whole. This step might involve creating a mission statement that is communicated and upheld in a significant way to all staff; a statement that inspires and aligns with the company’s core values. Essentially, it provides a solid foundation on which the rest of the business can operate from going forward.

Key to this effort is engaging the company’s greatest asset—its employees—and encouraging their role in sustaining the new culture. More and more job seekers are looking to work for green companies, so adopting a green culture can not only motivate existing staff but new hires as well.

Taking a hard look at the business

Once a company knows what it is striving for, leaders can begin to dig deep into assessing everything from how the business runs on a daily basis to the sustainability of its products or services (and specifically, its supply chain). This step will likely take the longest, as it requires delving into the details and looking at every procedure, policy, vendor, and so on. Company size will determine where to begin, with smaller businesses likely starting with easy “wins” and larger companies starting with the big picture, such as assessing the amount of energy consumed across the business. During this process, some key questions to consider include: 

  • How efficient is the building (or buildings) the company resides in, and can improvements be made (such as adding solar panels)? 
  • Is the entire supply chain built/focused on sustainability? Where are there gaps or inefficiencies?
  • How are vendor materials produced? Do they comply with environmental regulations?  
  • How are products manufactured and packaged (using recyclable or eco-conscious materials in low-carbon facilities) or services delivered (via excessive traveling or number of vehicles on the road)?  

Seeking help

The good news is that a company doesn’t have to take on this seemingly monumental effort alone. Not only is there extensive guidance available, but there are experts in the field who can help. The Green Business Bureau can provide a good starting point. Or, a company like Atlas Renewable Energy can help large consumers of clean energy shift to less-expensive sources of energy. Focused on operating with the highest of standards and adhering to its own sustainable development goals, Atlas has the deep knowledge and real-life experience to develop custom-made power purchase agreements that empower consumers to realize their clean energy goals. 

Or if budget is a concern, a company could develop the mission on their own and then work with consultants on specific activities, like gathering data on key aspects of the business that can be more sustainable. Furthermore, smaller companies might seek out applicable power purchase agreements or renewable energy certificates to help finance their efforts.  

Encouraging ongoing, sustainable change

In the current race to a carbon-free future, good intentions are no longer enough. Words must be used thoughtfully to tell the truth of what a business is, who it serves, and how it operates—and ultimately, what its environmental impact is. And that process begins with taking a deeper look at how a business can do better, from top to bottom, at every level.

An article in Forbes states, “By investing in good people, staying accountable and committing to a mission of sustainability inside and out, businesses in 2021 can push the world toward a better future while strengthening their own positions as market leaders in the bargain.”

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