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Enviro-scolds have spooked companies into silence about sustainability

Accusations of “greenwashing” undermine even genuine environmental progress

Ford Focus rolling off the assembly line

A Ford Focus coming off the assembly line in Wayne, MI. Ford improved its energy efficiency by 6.4% in 2012 alone. (Bill Pugliano/Getty)

It’s funny how the people who hate branded marketing the most often turn out to be the best at it. Naomi Klein certainly fits this category for the superbly branded No Logo. So does Adbusters for its admittedly stillborn Occupy Wall Street, along with that campaign’s more resilient offspring, the 1%. And so might a man named Jay Westerveld, for coining the term “greenwashing.” In a single moment of inspiration—the kind advertising copywriters dream of having maybe once in a career—Westerveld managed to asterisk every act of corporate environmentalism, forever.

Call me a cynic, but Westerveld and the activists who like to criticize those “save the Earth, reuse your towel” cards in hotels came immediately to mind when I surveyed this year’s Interbrand Best Global Green Brands list. And not for the reason you might think. In fact, the list is quite heartening. You would recognize all of the top 50 brands. They are among the world’s most valuable: names like Danone, Adidas, Samsung. Their sustainability efforts, audited by Deloitte, often feel at once arcane and profoundly important—reducing how much water it takes to build a car, for example—and underscore how the world is far more imperiled by the way we make things than by the way we use them.

I’d be the first to warn marketers not to let good works hijack their selling messages, but I’m puzzled as to why I didn’t know any of this stuff the last time I shopped for yogurt or running shoes or a TV. It was hard not to wonder if the spectre of Jay Westerveld hadn’t discouraged these companies from seeking a competitive edge in sustainability. Or outright bullied them into silence.

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According to Matthew Yeomans, that wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration. The founder of U.K.-based Sustainly, which consults with corporations on exactly this kind of problem, says brand managers tell him the risk of being attacked is a “very real concern” when the subject of sustainability communication comes up. “[They’ve] felt that they don’t have the authority to tell their own story…. They were told by the world of PR that they needed third-party validation from the media” in order to say anything, he told me in an e-mail exchange. In other words, corporations expect that any claim of environmental citizenship will, perforce, be distrusted and perhaps even punished.

They’re probably right. There’s no doubt environmentalists can be intimidating on their bully pulpits, and the cause is occasionally exploited as a Trojan Horse for anti-capitalism, making the rhetoric even more unforgiving. Almost by definition, any good a corporation does is disingenuous, since its only authentic imperative is profit. Yet there is evidence that many consumers are, in fact, more than capable of understanding that some good is better than no good, even if it happens to be profitable. Interbrand’s rankings specifically account for consumer perception, and the correlation between a brand’s value and its commitment to sustainability is clear.

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Companies ought to take some courage here, step up and commit themselves not only to chasing sustainability but to being open about it. This obviously doesn’t mean making specious declarations of moral superiority or letting consumers off the hook by promising to sell them a clear conscience. But it does mean being upfront about what’s being done, making that information part of the pitch and letting it influence people’s purchases. If a company could do that, the marketplace would finish the job. Sustainability could become a competitive battleground, more companies would join the fray, and Earth might end up at least a slightly better place.

A slightly better reality trumps a mirage of perfection, not despite being profitable but because of it. People like Westerveld were probably never going to be customers anyway, and I suspect the rest of us don’t care if a hotel makes a little more money, as long as it’s contaminating less of our water. Corporations may have a lot to answer for, but heaven help us if they ever decide it’s not worth trying to fix it.

Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award