Greenwash is Good

"Greed isn't good... Greenwash is". - John Peters

“Greed isn’t good… Greenwash is”. – John Peters

Anyone who saw Oliver Stone’s Wall Street will remember Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his “greed is good”* speech. It has become an icon of the era, much recalled in the past few years of the banking crisis.

Of course it wasn’t just an espousal of greed per se – it was a clever and articulate justification of unregulated Darwinian capitalism in making companies and societies perform better. As was said of Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, the devil gets all the best lines.

Greed really isn’t very good. It hasn’t led our businesses or our society anywhere useful over the 20-odd years since Wall Street was made. (I’m not sure we have quite grasped that yet, but that’s a topic for another day).

So, like Gordon Gekko addressing the stockholders and managers of a company his investment firm is about to asset-strip, let me start with a contrarian assertion.

Greenwash is good.

Now let me explain.

At a recent conference, when we were hearing a number of company stories about their CSR and sustainability activities, one of the delegates said to me: “ah well, you know, most of the people here have their PR and marketing people in charge of their sustainability activities”.

Meaning – they are only greenwashing. They aren’t taking it seriously.

But, if you think about it, who better to head up sustainability efforts? Because to make sustainability – well, sustainable – it needs to be an intrinsic part of an organisation’s business, not an add-on. And for most organisations, both commercial and non-commercial, being part of the business means that it makes commercial sense, customer sense, and market sense. In cost-benefit terms, the benefits need to be seen to outweigh the costs.

Marketing and corporate comms functions are charged with connecting an organisation to its community of customers, investors, and wider stakeholders. So they should be looking at CSR and sustainability efforts through the eyes of the customer and stakeholder communities. They should be asking – how does this make us a more attractive organisation? How does it make us more likely for people to invest in, long term? How does it build customer loyalty?

Those are all good questions. Where you have competing resource demands, and constrained resources, you need to be able to argue that, for example, the programme to make decision-making more transparent, or to engage with a biodiversity research group, or to cut waste across the company by 75%, makes must-do business sense as well as being societally nice-to-do.
That the two things do, in fact, coincide.

Greed really isn’t very good. It hasn’t led our businesses or our society anywhere useful.

So, let the marketing and corp comms people take the lead, because they should be best placed to make sure the stories are told to customers, investors and stakeholders in a sensible and coherent way. That of course is anything but “greenwash”. Telling stories of what an organisation has done, doesn’t just engage its community. It provides ideas and inspiration for others. It also creates case material for students and researchers to learn from and critique.

At Greenleaf, we are committed to encouraging, capturing and disseminating case stories in sustainability and CSR. With the greatest respect to my friends and colleagues in scholarly research; we need more than the carefully constructed, 6000-word quantitative research paper to make advances in this field. We need the stories of what’s being done, told by the people doing it, in their own (usually non-scholarly language) as well.

We expect that a smart marketer or PR person will position themselves and their organisation in a positive light when they do so. The smart people who work in these fields know that it doesn’t connect with a savvy customer, a prospective graduate recruit, or an investor if they just say “look at us, aren’t we great, blah blah…” They will talk about some of the challenges as well as the breakthroughs; the false starts as well as the successes; the business rationale as well as the philanthropic ideals.
Is that ‘greenwash’? I say not. But if the purists say it is – then ‘greenwash is good’.

*I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.

– Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) addresses the Teldar Paper shareholders meeting

By John Peters

John Peters is CEO of GSE Research and Greenleaf Publishing, independent publishers of books, journals and online collections in sustainability, social responsibility and related fields. GSE/Greenleaf work with like-minded partners and customers worldwide. John will be attending the 2013 IFLA conference in Singapore from the 17th-21st August.

To discuss, agree with or argue with John’s points of view, contact him at john.peters@gseresearch.com or leave a comment below.

Image © davidgljay @ Flickr.

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