Greenwashing is a path of least resistance
(how boring!)

For those of us seeking to re-balance the impact of commerce on ecology, we must present solutions that transcend profitable growth and ecological collapse. The easier we can make it to profit in harmony with nature, the quicker we can affect material change. 

Three key challenges, and opportunities await:

1) Living our values can be tough


Many of us who care deeply about the natural world, act in dissonance at work, necessitated by immediate needs surrounding personal and family wellbeing, first and foremost, earning a salary, and making ends meet.

Acting in harmony with social norms, embedded hierarchies, and expectations consumes less energy, carries less social risk, and solicits greater tangible reward, even if it means not vocalising, exploring, or acting on what we truly believe in.

Opportunity: Honest conversations are facilitated top-down

When products present a false reality, trust is often diminished:

‘False efficiency claims threaten carmaker collapse’.

‘Renewable energy claims widely mis-represented’.

Honest conversations start with data, knowledge, targets, and transparency. Whilst bottom-up change is vital, the true honesty few brands appear to possess, transpires from placing social obligation alongside profit, at the heart of shareholder and organisational culture.  Doing so can fuel innovation, create new markets, and protect long-term value. After all, a sustainable ecosystem is a pre-requisite to sustainable returns.

Furthermore, positive and material social and environmental change coincides with the creation of authentic narrative, boosting recruitment, morale, and sales too.

A transparent and creative opportunity awaits, at the nexus of shareholder returns, and market externalities.

2) We are all ‘consumers’


As a marketer, I’ve spent many a year developing products and aligning them with human wants, needs, and impulses.  However, the parameters that guide consumption – e.g., low price, abundant supply, and the perception of quality, carry deep yet intangible trade-offs with the natural world.

Consequentially, ecology and profit can have a difficult relationship and may appear weakly correlated, calling for market-level change, or technological revolution. Though, to sit still, is to surrender our part of the solution, is somewhat fatalistic, and risks obsolescence.

Our commercial culture and language also need to change. For example, the term ‘consumer’ encapsulates only the profit-centric side of the profit-social-environmental dynamic, only at the end of the supply chain, often leading to devolved accountability.

Whilst most of us are concerned about our degrading environment, a majority feel disempowered to channel sentiments into purchase decisions. However, this is no cause for inaction.

Opportunity: Re-address and re-target

We are faced with a challenging proposition; but one that’s far from impossible. Where old products fail to fit the new world, re-formulate, and re-imagine. We’re unlikely to please all existing customers, though most will adapt, whilst others are won, and new markets are created. A period of transition is of course inevitable.

We can also re-imagine how we address ‘consumers’, whether by other more positive terms, such as ‘enablers’, or simply ‘people’.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the addressable market for ‘climate premium’ products, is not mass market, and probably never will be. Rather, climate credentials are fast becoming ‘hygiene factors’, the absence of which hinders investment and support at all tiers of the value chain. Therefore, we must seek co-benefits and middle-ground, meeting people and businesses where they’re at. This could be deemed a ‘minimum underlying product’ – one that meets basic social, environmental, profit-centric, and shareholder needs.

3) We assign greater value to near-term goals


This phenomenon upweights immediate threats, such as cost of living, and down-weights gradual emerging threats such as global heating and biodiversity loss. Covid-19 proved dramatic cultural shifts, from vaccine approval to home working, are possible if the perceived threat is sufficiently imminent.

Global heating is unique in being high certainty, having dire consequences attached to short-term inaction, being less-tangible (in the West), and offering delayed and uncertain reward. Yet, a culture of transformation is now essential.

In contrast, most reward systems bias the near-term, from performance bonuses to mid-term elections.

Opportunity: Deliver short-term value that truly matters

By aligning progress and reward to metrics both including and beyond ‘growth’, we can empower greater employee and customer engagement, toward a culture that profits in balance with people and planet.

Offsetting may seem the simple option, though seldom offers real-world benefit, or compelling stories. ‘We planted x trees’.   But, who planted them?  Were they the right trees?  In the right place?  For what purpose?  Sustained for how many years?  With what level of additionality?  Many of us have lost faith in this failing and exploited process.

Better, more authentic, stories are likely to exist within our own supply chains, where we are closer to the change and get hands-on in ways that transpire in greater efficiency, lower costs, and some great marketing claims to boot.

Through truth comes value in acknowledgement, no company or person is perfect. That’s natural. More important than where we are, or where we’ve been, is who we are, and where we’re going.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! I’d love to get your thoughts, whether you agree, or disagree with the ideas above (see comments section below).

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