Buyer Be Good

by Sandra Odendahl
 
Can you really save the planet by buying stuff?
IT
SEEMS that every time I open the newspaper, turn on the television or
check for online news, some company is touting its environmental
commitment. I am encouraged to use reusable shopping bags, purchase
more concentrated detergent and wear organically grown, cotton
T-shirts. Done in the name of saving the planet, these promotions, not
coincidently, highlight the corporate responsibility of the product or
service’s purveyor.
Two questions arise in
my mind when I see such marketing. The first is: Can you really save
the planet by buying stuff? The second is: How do you identify a good
corporate citizen?
I won’t attempt to answer the first question. But I’ll try to address the second.
Green
products or services may have environmental benefits, but companies
that promote them also hope to serve their firm’s short- and/or
long-term financial interests. While this is exactly what companies
should do, it doesn’t mean that they are neces-sarily more socially or
environmentally responsible than their competitors. They may be, but
all we can say for sure is that they have identified some benefit to
being perceived to be green.
If you can’t
tell from its products and services alone, how do you judge if a firm
really is environmentally responsible, or if you are a victim of
disinformation or greenwashing?  It’s tough. While there are some ways
to tell if a green product claim is bogus, there is no standard measure
for the environmental performance of the entire firm. Or rather, there
are dozens, and they are all different. Unlike financial markets, there
are no uniform requirements for what environmental information must be
reported, no standard analysis and no generally accepted criteria for
rating performance. That is why a company may receive awards for its
environmental initiatives one week and be vilified for environmental
misdeeds the next.
What are motivated
citizens to believe, and what can you do? How can you decide if a
company is really contributing to something you believe in, or whether
it is just making a buck?
Here are a few clues.

??Green companies strive to be green through and through. In addition
to offering environmentally preferable products or services, they also
understand how their business supply chain and operations affect the
environment, and are making efforts to minimize their impacts;
•??Green companies allocate resources to improving their environmental performance; 

??Green companies have objectives and targets for improving their
overall environmental performance, not just in the marketing area; and

??Green companies are not afraid to report on their environmental
performance. They don’t just publish glossy brochures filled with
smiling children and nature scenes.
Ultimately,
we need uniform, generally accepted environmental accounting principles
and methods of analysis that enable consumers and investors to
interpret and objectively compare one firm’s environmental performance
to that of its peers. But don’t hold your breath. While there is some
convergence in environmental and social reporting, thanks to the
efforts of the Global Reporting Initiative, there is a burgeoning
industry of “rankers and spankers” out there. These firms combine
informa-tion gathered through their own questionnaires with publicly
available information, and then apply their own “proprietary” criteria
and analysis, resulting in ratings that have nothing in common with the
ratings of the next rank-and-spank firm.
So
by all means, let’s reward companies that are genuinely superior
environmental performers by giving them our business. But it may be a
while before it’s easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Sandra Odendahl is the director of corporate environmental affairs at RBC Financial Group.

Download and print your own “Six Sins of Greenwashing” wallet card at www.terrachoice.com.

This article appeared in Alternatives Journal 34:4 (2008) – re-syndicated with permission. Buy this issue and read the accompanying articles in the magazine: Eco-Cents by Blair Feltmate

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