Greenwash has become a byword for the worst kind of sustainability strategy – all talk and no action. But have we thrown the baby out with the green bathwater? There may be some commercial value in talking up your sustainability plans, as long as the real action follows, argues Ioannis Ioannou.
One of the most common complaints I hear from sustainability teams in business is how frustrating it is to see a competitor getting lots of credit for their sustainability programme, despite having done little in practice – and certainly less than they have. The accusations of greenwash fly, but at the same time, the frustration is in part a realisation that these competitors are getting some real value from their better profile – perhaps a positive reputational hit that can have all sorts of knock-on effects, both inside and outside the business, including more momentum for some real action.
All of which raises the question – can it be a more effective investment to talk about what your sustainability programme might do, than to actually do something? I’ve been exploring this question with my colleague Professor Olga Hawn of Boston University, through the lens of what we term ‘symbolic’ and ‘substantive’ action. It sounds complex, but in fact it’s quite simple. A lot of companies out there pursue what we call symbolic sustainability action. Mostly that consists of public reporting of intent to do something. For instance, company X might report that they favour promotion from within, or that they have a CSR committee, or even that they now have a Code of Conduct. These are symbolic actions in that they create the sense and perception of action predominantly in external audiences, despite the fact that – generally – not much changes from business as usual.
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