Greenwashing – whose responsibility is it anyway?

About the author

Katie Graham prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Photo by ANGELA BENITO on Unsplash
Photo by ANGELA BENITO on Unsplash
Katie Graham
Katie Graham

PR agencies working with oil companies have come under fire recently with a peer-reviewed report suggesting greenwashing remains rampant among big oil companies, with a mismatch between discourse and action.

This implies an issue within the PR and communications arena, rather than the companies themselves, and it’s no surprise that many spokespeople have emerged calling for agencies to cut ties with the energy industry including Stuart Lambert, co-founder and chief strategy officer at ESGP advisory firm Blurred, who declared that “No PR firm should be working for a company that denies or misinforms when it comes to climate change.”

A bold statement, but isn’t this a rather low bar? We may have a reputation as an industry for being unscrupulous spin doctors but surely we have enough morals to avoid companies who actively lie, regardless of the topic? Perhaps that’s rather idealistic in a world where the phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” is regularly parroted across social media.

But should the environmental impact of these companies be pinned on their PR team?

While we obviously support in promoting green credentials, can PR agencies really be blamed for clients not fulfilling their corporate social responsibilities, especially when you consider that if firms are willing to mislead the public, there’s a strong chance they haven’t been 100% upfront with their PR team either. That is a poor excuse. To echo Carden Calder, “every individual practitioner has a responsibility to satisfy themselves that they have full information on whatever they’re representing”.

So if we’re responsible for the discourse, who’s responsible for the action?

Consumers are increasingly forcing corporations to take accountability, while taking responsibility for their own environmental impact, especially in the fashion sector. In the last year, the second-hand clothing market has exploded, while Twitter and TikTok have been instrumental to the exposure of companies not pulling their weight. H&M recently came under fire for its “recycling scheme” in which customers donate old clothes in exchange for vouchers. Between the lack of transparency regarding what happens to the old clothes, and encouraging customers to purchase more fast-fashion items, the scheme is not truly promoting sustainable fashion.

It’s no wonder that cynicism is growing as corporations are increasingly perceived by the general public as contributing more to the problems of the world than they’re solving.

As much as corporations would like to promote individual responsibility around these issues, consumers shouldn’t have to scrutinise business practices to be certain that they are making ethical choices instead of being subjected to greenwashing tactics. This is particularly evidenced in the amount of advice energy companies have been giving about reducing energy, or house builders who encourage the purchase of new homes for the environmental benefits without even considering doing anything to reduce the environmental impact of producing them.

It ought to come down to the corporation as the cause of the societal issue, whether that is environmental, or another such as child labour or gender inequality, to obligated to either mitigate their impact on the world or resolve the issue.

Rittel and Webber’s description of these as “wicked problems” rightly points out that it’s often not an easy fix with any attempt to solve them resulting in more entangled problems, and often competing interests affecting the resolution. With globalisation to factor in, the magnitude of these issues is more complex than ever before.

Thus it’s not surprising that many companies choose not to engage at all, or stick with superficiality and shy away from any social or political statements for fear of backlash – look at Lush, who had to shut down its campaign against undercover police who forged relationships underhandedly after its staff got endless abuse from police supporters.

Strong leadership is required to navigate these murky waters.

Strong leadership is required to navigate these murky waters, which you might presume comes from the company’s senior team or CEO.  A logical presumption to place responsibility on the key decision-makers, but some would argue that this depends on whether greenwashing is deliberate; as Mintzberg (1985) pointed out, sometimes results emerge from a pattern of actions rather than decisions.

Nonetheless, it is the senior team who establish those patterns, so while Strand reckons that more often than not, business people don’t even know the issue exists, any truth behind that statement shouldn’t exonerate the C-suite from responsibility. Although when there are more chief executives named Steve than there are of ethnic minorities, and more CEOs named Peter than there are women, representation is so narrow at the top that it’s not implausible that these issues go unnoticed, or worse, disregarded.

At the very least, it is upon the top management team, in particular the CEO, to foster the “culture of candour” Warren Bennis (2009) and Bill George (2003) discuss, where people throughout the organisation feel empowered to ask questions and expose issues that would otherwise go unaddressed.

Strand points out that “leadership” is not necessarily the same as “management”, and anyone can display the leadership qualities of empathy, curiosity, and courage to facilitate CSR by asking the questions necessary to raise awareness of an issue and instigate change. And so it falls back to us, PR professionals, in our unique position as a stakeholder straddling the line between internal and external audiences.

We may not have a formal industry code of ethics but it’s better late than never. What better reason than the fate of the planet for us to step into the advisor role Tucker and Yeomans speak of. After all, that’s what CEOs want according to Gregory and Willis; strong ethics and straight-talking honesty, and seems like they need it if they are as clueless as Strand claims.

So we should take any opportunity to point out that customers are proven willing to pay more for genuinely sustainable products, that CSR related factors accounted for 49% of a company’s image, encourage authentic action like collaborating with NGOs, and refuse to be complicit in misleading the public. As Griffin says, “the role of the communications function is not to sit back and wait for change to happen, but to help organisations change when change is the right answer.”1 and change is needed now more than ever.