Published on April 6, 2016, at 8:30 p.m.
by Eliza Sheffield.
All-natural. Eco-safe. Environmentally friendly. Fragrance-free.
These labels are plastered across products in most stores. At first glance, they make certain items sound like great options. But in the effort to be well-informed consumers, it’s worth digging past the buzzwords and taking a look at company practice.
Within corporate social responsibility, “greenwashing” is a term used to refer to companies framing their behavior as more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Greenpeace defines it as “the cynical use of environmental themes to whitewash corporate misbehavior.”
Corporate social responsibility can be a challenging and nuanced area, and marketing and public relations professionals often find themselves on the front lines between companies and the public. Discerning proper behavior is challenging enough, but practicing it is even tougher when what is right or wrong is often clouded by what is profitable.
“In order to be more appealing and earn more, companies advertise their goods and services as ‘green’ even if they really aren’t,” according to an article from sustainability consultants First Carbon Solutions. “Therefore, consumers must be aware of the various signs of greenwashing so that they can avoid being deceived and companies employing these practices may be discouraged from continuing to mislead their customers.”
It’s tempting to cut corners and greenwash, but short-term facades can lead to a brand catastrophe, such as the Volkswagen Group’s emissions scandal of 2015. It came to light that the company was sending VW cars into the market that emitted more than 40 times the legal nitrogen oxide level. (NOx contributes to heart and lung problems and, in reaction with sulfur dioxide, can produce acid rain.) Volkswagen’s gigantic emission footprint was equivalent to the NOx emissions of all the UK’s power stations, vehicles, industries and agricultural facilities. After this environmental catastrophe came to light, the VW Group has suffered from low sales and continues to patch together its damaged reputation.
In today’s big-business, big-impact world, companies don’t have the luxury of shirking their environmental responsibilities. Fortunately though, responsible environmental practice and savvy profit strategies aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ron Jarvis, vice president of merchandising and sustainability at The Home Depot, has been with the company since 1995 and has selected products from around the world in his job as a merchant. When he began overseeing sustainability in 2000, he brought the sustainability department in-house, which he said has led to a more personalized and effective sustainability plan.
“We know our business inside and out so we know our environmental footprint in and out,” Jarvis shared.
Address concerns quickly and honestly.
Jarvis said The Home Depot tackles feedback about environmental concerns seriously no matter who voices it. This process starts by discerning the validity of the criticism to see where the disconnect of communication is. Usually, the company finds that consumers have been fed wrong information or else The Home Depot’s suppliers have misinformed the company.
“If there’s something wrong, we’re going to fix it,” Jarvis said. “And if not, then we’re going to educate the public on what misperception may be out there. Since 2000, this is the model we have run with.”
Practice & demand transparency.
“We go straight to whoever we have to to tell us exactly what’s going on with this product,” Jarvis said. “If there’s concern, if there’s something there where we think people are using smoke and mirrors to tell us the answer, we’ll just get rid of it and replace it with something else.”
Jarvis said that environmental practice is taken seriously across boards throughout the country because sustainability has become a competitive measurement.
“A good environmental idea hits the market faster than it ever has in the past,” he said.
Don’t underestimate the small steps — but don’t exaggerate them either.
A major pitfall companies fall into is doing very little as far as environmental efforts and then framing their work as more than it is. This practice often backfires and can lead companies to paying lip service to CSR standards without actually reforming practice.
“There are multiple definitions of ‘100 percent renewables,’” said Richard Martin in an article by the MIT Technology Review. “And so far none of them involve a company actually getting all of its power from wind, solar, geothermal, or biofuels plants. And in many cases the companies that have publicly pledged to go fully renewable have not assigned a specific deadline.”
Build your case with your track record, not unsubstantiated claims for the future.
Jarvis said he set the company direction years ago about how The Home Depot talks about environmental issues, sustainability and social governance.
“Out of the 100 percent we talk about, 90 percent will be what we’ve already done, and 10 percent will be aspirational, whereas other companies are almost 100 percent aspirational,” he said.
Integrity is valuable and relevant.
Adopting sustainable practices is easier said than done. And of course it is: If people hadn’t found things easier to say than to do thousands of times, the phrase wouldn’t be the thriving cliché it is today. However, the challenge of reconciling profit with environmental responsibility doesn’t excuse companies from doing the right thing.
Tom Yulsman, director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, said that his responsibility as a journalist is to pursue the truth on behalf of the public.
“Sometimes that means a story will align with some activists’ vision of necessary environmental reform,” he said. “But sometimes the opposite will be true. For example, when activists exaggerate and/or cherry pick data to attain a particular political result. As a journalist, my first obligation is to tell the truth as my reporting has led me to see it. And my primary allegiance is to the public. Period. Full stop.”
Public relations practitioners should share a similar critical lens toward activists and a persistent devotion to truth.
Strong careers rely on honesty and good character and can’t be built by cutting corners and flinging buzzwords. Instead, PR professionals must act with integrity throughout every corner of practice, including challenging areas such as environmental responsibility.