With COP26 almost upon us, the thoughts of some of the greatest minds of the planet will no doubt be all over our screens in the coming days.
Which makes it slightly strange to be quoting hip hop legends Public Enemy in an ESG column. But few assessments would better sum up the state of the greenwashing issue at the moment than “Don’t believe the hype”.
Like any cynical communicator, I’m mindful that much is done to make reputations as glossy as possible, and despite the universal understanding that behaviour is what does most to shape it, words that make it seem as positive as possible will always be swirling around.
As we approach events in Glasgow though, and with calls growing not just for standardisation in ESG reporting but also regulation to counter greenwashing, the need to address it seems to be coming to the fore.
Doing so will of course require some definition – an untruth is an untruth, but how far can a business go in varnishing (with paint, in this case) its credentials so that the truth is stretched beyond acceptable bounds?
In other words, how much hype is too much, so that it tips over beyond embellishment, either into claims that can’t be substantiated or, worse, misrepresentation?
All of this is likely to be subject to much more scrutiny in coming months, but the recent calling out of greenwashing may place a lens of sorts over some of the commitments and comments made at COP26. While much of the recent media attention has focused on ESG investing and the need to clamp down on claims that overstate ‘green’ progress or credentials, the point that hasn’t been made yet – but will surely come – is that hyping green matters should be treated differently to hyping, say, a product’s other benefits of performance.
That doesn’t mean presenting facts with no emotion or context, but does likely mean information must be fair, accurate and balanced, with greater definition around how those factors are applied. In fact, the very word ‘green’ may end up slightly meaningless and ‘twee’, with the focus shifting to environmental science and measurable, definitive progress to reduce carbon emissions rather than colour-based generalisations.
But if not, green hype may become a clear and heightened reputation risk.
Again though, what is greenwashing? Predictably, definitions vary – it’s a subjective topic. But until it set in regulatory or standards-based stone, despite the Government’s forthcoming roadmap, expect the noise around greenwashing to continue.
Over time, there will likely be reduced risk of companies around ‘washing’ as definitions firm up and clearer lines are drawn. But until then, expect what green really means to come into question frequently, and hype to be a tool used very carefully.