Thou shalt not greenwash

Reading Dan Gray’s Live Long and Prosper this week re-ignited an intellectual debate that has been raging within my head for ages.

Can you preside over a truly sustainable brand if the focus of your corporate responsibility activity is not directly relevant to your own business strategy and operations?

Dan Gray says no way. His third commandment, “thou shalt not engage in greenwash” states that sustainable brands must integrate and serve those concerns that are directly relevant to their sphere of influence. They must focus their corporate responsibility activities on issues that are directly relevant to and most impacted by the business’ strategy and operations.

I can see the sense in this for most commercial undertakings. Oil companies should clean up after themselves if they make a mess. Chocolate manufacturers need to be careful where they source their palm oil from. Shoe shops don’t want to be buying stock from sweat shops employing 6 year old kids working 12 hour days for two bob. But no one is seriously questioning our right to put petrol in our Prius, a Lion bars in our belly or Twilights on our toes.

But what about tobacco companies? Fundamentally, their core business reduces the life expectancy of every one of their customers. Does this mean that the focus of their corporate responsibility activities has to be on finding a cure for lung cancer and providing medical assistance to those damaged by their products? The logical extension to this argument would be the only way for a tobacco company to create a sustainable brand would be to close down its operations and stop making cigarettes.

I’ve seen many good examples of companies engaging in corporate responsibility activities that are not directly relevant to their own operations that do not comprise greenwashing.  And I have seen many examples of companies who try a little too hard to leverage their community programmes to support their commercial activities, which to my mind is equally as cynical and potentially damaging as washing your greens.

Regardless of my issues with Dan Gray’s third commandment, it was a very insightful read and I’d thoroughly recommend anyone interested in this stuff to grab hold of a copy.

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