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..it's What You Don't Say...


Recently, one of Africa's largest retailers launched a television campaign to extol their achievements around reducing their environmental impacts. It is a catchy advert with 'warm and fuzzy' elements designed to melt event the most critical consumers heart. And it probably does just that, except for the fact that those that know the difference between sustainability and PR-speak found it wanting because of what the advert doesn't say.!


Greenwashing is all about making broad statements that tend to win hearts rather than providing objective facts and evidence. We all know examples of greenwashing - from vehicle manufacturers to industrial products, but how many of us do anything about it? I did, and found myself pilloried by all-and-sundry for being over-critical and missing the fact that the advert was 'cute'. I even had one armchair critic say that the company concerned was not Greenpeace, so 'what's the problem?' Precisely what is to be expected from flat-earthers and those that don't understand the problem! The advert fails because it fell-short of being honest and accurate - a benchmark for any sustainability reporting approach and while it is quite possible that the company is doing everything right, why not say so your in public utterances and why use puffer y to try get that message across?


There is no dispute that the ad is cute and that it leaves one feeling warm and fuzzy, but it doesn't change the fact that the company concerned should know better than try to create hype based on unsubstantiated achievements or vague statements. So what if they are committed to reducing their carbon emissions if they fail to frame their achievements in terms of total emissions. Or why mention your company's' commitment to sourcing sustainable products without showing how this translates into the percentage of such products on your shelves? Or whether they have sold reusable, recyclable shopping bags without giving details of the percentage that these sales represent of the total bag sales by the company? Why claim the use of renewables without being more specific about the extent of these or about who provides the certificates that are being used as offsets? And my favourite - why boast of achievements that are the bare minimum that any responsible company should be doing? These are omissions and oversights that almost all Sustainability Reports include, and something that companies need to understand and correct before going public and making questionable statements.


If your company is reporting on its sustainability performance, provide your data in the context of the overall impact that you have. Saving a million Kilowatts of energy means nothing if this only represents 2% of your total energy consumption. Claiming to being committed to sustainable sourcing means nothing unless you can demonstrate that you are actually doing so - and in some significant way. And removing waste from your landfill stream should be measured against what you still send to landfill sites. I am not for one moment suggesting that we ignore or dismiss any of these efforts by retailers or businesses, but we should be very wary of trumpeting their success without context,


We can all appreciate the efforts and costs associated with implementing sustainable energy alternatives, but are companies always applying the cradle-to-grave principle in conversion from fossil fuels? Do they consider the disposal and decommissioning impacts associated with their energy choices.? Their sustainability reports don't reflect this, so for all we know they are simply kicking the impact can down the road. Is it ethical or correct to claim thermal sources that are linked to the national grid when everyone in the country shares the same source?


Without clear, unambiguous and honest comparison or context on the achievements being made, they are pointless and tantamount to greenwashing. What is it that companies are hiding? We all have secrets and we all stand an above average chance of failing to meet our goals and objectives, but smoothing-over the facts to attract or influence consumer behaviour is dishonest and unethical - particularly so when those omissions and inaccuracies affect the lives or health of consumers and communities..


If you want your sustainability report and credentials to be taken seriously by an ever-increasingly aware consumer, be honest in your disclosures. We recognise that sustainability reporting is only as accurate as the commitment a company has to making a difference, but if it isn't prepared to provide the truth - warts and all, then why bother?

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