As consumer and media attention continues to highlight the environmental policies of corporations, the issue of green washing is growing. Greenwashing—putting on a façade of greenness, environmentalism etc— remains especially dangerous with public trust at such low levels.

But why do we care? After all green washing is at least a form of attention to important issues, and the downsides of blatant greenwashing are obvious. No one will argue that green washing is a solid long-term strategy.

Greenwashing and accusations of it highlight the difficulty of evaluating the “greenness” or environmentalism of a company. Metrics to standardize analysis of a company’s “greenness” are becoming more common, but these too have their downsides. Even more open-ended metrics like LEED come under frequent attack—LEED-certified brokers I had interned under would state “You can be green or you can be LEED, but not both.” (One point for which LEED has come under attack is lack of evaluation for a structure’s size versus utility ie how can a sprawling mansion be green.) This is not meant as a criticism of LEED as much as a recognition that almost all environmental metrics suffer from regular criticism because they are inherently somewhat limiting.

Still, metrics are an answer to the underlying issue of green washing. The business of environmentalism—from branches of corporations, to consulting firms, to new businesses— while slowed by the recession looks to face rapid growth. How to maintain validity and consumer trust with the industry so widespread internationally looms overhead. (The selling of carbon offsets may be the best example of this.) The point, though slow-coming, is that the environmental front needs to avoid the scandals that have seem so widespread of late—because scandals will decrease trust across the entire sector; and amid rapid growth the space for illegitimacy and scandal is wider.

What does this mean? As companies move forward with sustainable policies; the policies need to be comprehensive and reflect the core values of the organization. The process of becoming more sustainable needs to come from the inside out. Granted new policies will help transform the company culture; but until the company is reflective of its own environmental policies, it will be at risk of a consumer/shareholder backlash.


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