Beware of Greenwashing

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains the difference between being a purposeful company and just talking like one.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

A UK survey found that while 86% of companies have a purpose statement, 83% of them haven’t determined what it means on an operational basis. This is particularly true when it comes to environmentalism: the term "greenwashing,"  coined in 1986, describes what happens when a company provides misleading information and gives a false impression about how environmentally sound they are.

When it comes to false environmental claims, the fashion industry has been particularly guilty. According to a report released by the nonprofit Changing Markets Foundation, 59% of all green claims by European and UK fashion brands are misleading. The report, which looked at global fashion brands, revealed a series of discrepancies between what consumers were led to believe and what is actually happening.

In one case, for instance, while the company marketed a collection as environmentally friendly, the supposedly eco-conscious line actually contains a greater percentage of synthetic fibers than their regular fast-fashion apparel. These synthetic fibers require fossil fuels such as oil and fracked gas to manufacture. The production of synthetic fibers currently accounts for 1.35% of global oil consumption—more than the annual oil consumption of the entire country of Spain.

The report also highlighted brands' lack of long-term thinking. In an effort to “go green,” brands have been turning to fibers made from recycled single-use plastic bottles. (A whopping 99% of one company’s recycled polyester comes from these bottles.) While downcycling plastic sounds good in theory, many environmentalists call it a false solution. It takes energy to recycle the bottles and, once people are done wearing the clothes, the majority of them just end up right back in a landfill.

Urska Trunk, campaign manager for the Changing Markets Foundation, says that brands are “dragging their feet on embracing truly circular solutions.” She adds that they are “not making the necessary investments to ensure a future in which clothes can be recycled back into clothes.”

Compared with fossil fuel companies, fashion gurus may not even be among the worst when it comes to greenwashing. Together with Greenpeace Netherlands, the global warming blogger DeSmog conducted an analysis of over 3,000 advertisement and promotions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube from six European fossil fuel companies. In the company with the largest discrepancy, they found that 81% of the reviewed advertisements promoted “green” technologies or false solutions, while only an estimated 1% of the company’s portfolio was in non-fossil fuel energies.

This is greenwashing in its prime: when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their actual environmental impact.

One hopeful sign: the willingness of consumers to be more critical in researching their purchases. Just look to Gen Z (those born between 1995 and 2012). While this group is more likely to buy from socially responsible brands, they seem to be less fooled by brand messaging. Many young consumers are investing time in doing the research.

“Every brand wants to get on the purpose train but so many of them are simply saying nice things but not doing anything,” Michael Pankowski, a junior at Harvard and founder of the Gen Z consulting firm Crimson Connection, told AdAge. “If you want Gen Z’s trust as a brand, we need to see that you’re legitimately backing your words with actions.”

Meanwhile, in other good news, as some companies aim to be carbon neutral, others are aiming to shift away from using carbon entirely. Last year, Google's 2030 decarbonization deadline was one of the most aggressive environmental pledges ever seen in Big Tech. In July of this year, Microsoft followed suit with its own 24/7 carbon-free commitment.

Yet Google’s CEO, Sunday Pichai, admitted to Bloomberg that his company doesn't "fully have all the answers" to achieve the goal. That he called the timeline "a bit stressful" may actually be a good sign.

After all, it’s one thing to fail and quite another to lie. Best case scenario, companies do two things: challenge themselves to make sacrifices while, at the same time, staying real about what they actually commit to do.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. With the rise of purpose washing, this familiar adage is crucial to the health of the purpose movement. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.