Confusing Purpose-Driven with ‘Greenwashing’

Leaders need to embrace sustainability as a business strategy, not just develop ad campaigns about it, argues best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

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. 

Younger employees and shoppers increasingly care about the environmental policies of the companies they work for or buy from.  A company whose genuine purpose includes acting to protect nature wins their loyalty and business.

But beware of “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing’ describes the corporate practice of conveying false or misleading information about a company’s environmental impact. The term was coined in 1986 by the environmental activist Jay Westerveld in an essay examining sustainability in the hotel industry. 

On a trip to Fiji, Westerveld stopped into a sprawling beach resort, where he saw a note asking guests to reuse their towels in order to reduce ecological damage. The note finished with something like, “Help us to help our environment,” a statement Westerveld found ironic given how much waste the hotel was generating and how many new bungalows they were building along the beach with no real attention to the environmental impact.

Climate experts have long said if we are going to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and save the planet, the private sector will need to play a pivotal role. But even before Westerveld coined the term greenwashing the practice was already a popular marketing strategy. In the 1980s, for example, one oil company won advertising awards for its campaign highlighting its efforts to protect foxes, bears, and sea turtles. Yet California residents were outraged, pointing out how that same oil company was spilling oil into oceans and wildlife refuges.

Fast forward to the current increased pressure for brands to do good by the environment. A 2015 Nielsen poll revealed that 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products — among millennials, that number jumped to 72%.

Though not new, over the past decade greenwashing has become far more sophisticated. The rise of social media has led to more pervasive and creative advertising, with more and more brands using environmental buzzwords to convince consumers of their ecological credibility.

A recent review of online sustainability claims in the EU revealed that 42% were greenwashing by using false, deceptive, and exaggerated claims, claims that could potentially qualify as unfair commercial practices under EU rules.

When EU authorities the seemingly dubious claims in more detail, they found that the claims had one or more of the following things in common:

  • The brand or organization did not provide sufficient information for consumers to verify the claim's accuracy.
  • The claim included vague language or general statements using buzzwords such as “conscious,” “eco-friendly,” or “sustainable,” all of which aimed to convince consumers that a product had no negative impact on the environment.

There is an old quote, “Believe none of what you hear and believe half of what you see.” When it comes to corporate environmental claims, consumers need to think critically.

Afterall, if companies are really going to embrace sustainability as a part of their purpose, they will need to do more than craft their language; they will need to take a hard look at their business plans, their actions, and their ecological impacts. They will need to prove to the public that they are actually the picture of environmental purpose they claim. 

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