Posted by: genevievetaylor | February 17, 2010

Avoiding Greenwashing

I recently attended the State of Green Business Forum, an annual event hosted by Greener World Media (they host among others).  It was a provocative day of cutting-edge thinkers in green business, and representatives from many companies we would know, as well as start-ups, consultancies, etc.

One of the panels discussed the topic of “Green Marketing in the Age of Transparency.”  Several innovateurs were represented, including Dara O Rourke from (download the app if you haven’t already!), Wendy Cobdra at Earthsense, Chris Nelson of UL Environment, and Stephen Linaweaver of Green Order.  They said the fundamental challenge for companies who are attempting to integrate sustainability into their marketing plan (of which many can count themselves, now) is the consumer’s love-hate relationship with the companies that they rely on.

On the one hand, consumers want companies to step up and become sustainable.

On the other, they don’t believe that those organizations are doing what they say they are doing.

Further, while everyone knows what a sustainable company is NOT, no one has yet really agreed on what it IS.

This puts good intentioned organizations in a tough spot.  They are trying to do what is right, but at the best are blundering in what they say about their efforts, either sharing too much or raising expectations.  At the worst, they are confirming the suspicions of their customers, with incidences of fraud, exposes of poor environmental, labor, or quality practices, etc.  In an era of Enron, how DO we move forward?

To complicate matters – the “them” in this picture is “us.”  Many of the same people who work in these organizations are those people who distrust what the organizations do. Why that is, we can only speculate.  But it certainly makes for a complex picture.

Enter: the Authentically Sustainable Company.

If you read my last post on this topic, you will see I have noted a series of organizational realms – internally and externally, and at the individual and collective level.

In this era of rapid communication and what some may call “Radical Transparency,” companies who portray themselves must do so with integrity.  Here are some tips, both from the conference as well as my own thinking:

  1. Define the Boundaries. Wendy Cobdra explained that many companies try to market themselves as a “sustainable company”, and then when something is leaked that doesn’t portray them in someone else’s brain as sustainable, they lose credibility.  If you are working on energy efficiency, then focus on that.  If your employees are satisfied and feel they are making a difference for their clients and their communities, let us know about that!
  2. Strive for Integrity. Even with all of Wal-Mart’s hailed work around sustainability, the world is still deeply suspicious because of their labor practices (low-paying, low-benefits, etc.) and their tendency to squelch rather than enliven local commerce.  While they are still making truly astounding change, they will not make the kind of change that is needed.
  3. Don’t sacrifice the good for the perfect. This is a reminder to all of us: a certain amount of compassion and encouragement is in order for all of us.  None of us has it right, yet, and as I have said in previous posts, inspiration is a fundamental avenue for change.

Now, having said all of that, we had a great conversation at the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy recently about B-Corporations – which certainly encourage a holistic perspective on what  sustainability in businesses could be.  In his presentation, founding member Christopher Peck showed a slide that summed it up very succinctly:

One Planet.  One Experiment. No Backup.

Which leads me to ask, is greenwashing even the real problem, if we can’t figure out how to create “one planet businesses?”

Do you know of any “One Planet Businesses?”


  1. Genevieve, thanks for the discussion and info.

    I recommend those seeking to learn more about One Planet Businesses, check our One Planet Communities ( This is a non-profit netowrk of the “earth’s greenest neighborhoods”. Their committment is to bring the ecological footprint down to a truly sustainable, one planet level by 2020-without sacrificing comforts. Sound too good to be true? Don’t be too skeptical, they have 10 principles which guide a Sustainability Action Plan complete with metrics and measurements.

    The founders of this initiative, BioRegional, have also established One Planet Products (, a non-for-profit member-led club to assess building and renewable energy products products against the One Planet Principles for comparision.

    • Hi Tina,
      Many thanks for posting this link! What you are doing at Sonoma Mountain Village has certainly been an inspiration as I think about what a “One Planet Business” is; I will have to post on what those guidelines specifically are. The one planet products is an interesting innovation – as it would seem to apply those principles to a more general business level. I will have to check this out as well!
      Thanks again!

  2. This is a great post, Genevieve; thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: