Greener than thou

Just getting through a backlog of blogs. Two excellent posts from Joel Makower on the massive trend towards “green business” these past few months.

Is there a green business bubble? talks about some of the press asking if this current momentum is just a fad. The key pull-quote for me (though I recommend reading the whole thing):

… With no [definition of “green business”] standards, the bar is free to drift continually higher. And that seems to be what is happening. For example, as more companies claim some form of carbon neutrality, the value of carbon neutral as a marketing claim becomes increasingly devalued. And as the bar rises, laggard companies, even if fully compliant on the regulatory front, are finding themselves further and further behind, from a reputational perspective.

I’ve actually spoken to a lot of people lately that have commented on whether all these businesses rushing to be “carbon neutral” are just greenwashing. Joel’s take is quite interesting in this regard.

But on the topic of greenwashing, Joel posted: The Greenwasher in All of Us.

Another great article, but the highlight:

I’ve been seeing the “G” word showing up more and more, in both local and national media. And while it’s generally good that we maintain high standards for companies’ seeking to claim environmental leadership, I can’t help but ponder the hypocrisy of it all: how much more we expect of companies than of ourselves.

I’ve heard the sentiment that “government and companies aren’t doing enough” as a reason not to try harder or do better. It’s an easy escape hatch from taking responsibility for our own actions. Heck, I’m just as guilty.

In some cases it truly is an issue – a lack of infrastructure, a lack of products readily available etc. But I think on some level it’s also a sense of powerlessness – that my personal efforts won’t make a difference unless business and government do their bit. There’s truth in that – but it certainly doesn’t let us off the hook.

I don’t usually do big quotes, but this next passage from Joel’s post is really powerful, to my mind anyway:

When I speak to audiences about the greening of business — nearly every week these days, or so it seems — I often conduct an informal poll to see how audience members behave in their personal lives: how many drive hybrids or carpool to work, or are simply driving less; how many have installed solar panels or purchase green energy for their homes; how many use organic or low-toxic gardening techniques; how many seek out locally produced goods; how many have taken the basic measures at home — have installed energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, water-saving devices, insulation and weatherstripping, and the like.

Some audiences are more tentative than others in volunteering answers, but even the most enthusiastic groups tend to have only a handful of members who appear to taking more than a few token actions.

That is, few of us have gone very far out of our way to make changes that we all know are necessary to address today’s environmental challenges.

This admittedly unscientific research has limited value, of course, except to raise the inevitable question: Why aren’t we doing what we’re asking companies to do?

I’m guessing that in the few seconds it took for you to read the preceding question you’ve already formulated some kind of answer: It’s hard to do everything right … It takes too much time and costs too much … I want to do these things, but never seem to get around to it … My spouse/partner/friends don’t share my interest in being environmentally responsible … I’m not sure which products and companies are truly the good ones … I have doubts that if I do these things that it’ll really make a difference.

Sound even a little familiar? Does that make you malevolent? Probably not, though reasonable minds will disagree.

One need modify the above statements only slightly to make them appropriate for companies.

And that is the sentiment I hear from business that I’ve spoken to about this stuff. It’s very similar things that stop us individually from taking action. So if a company takes some steps, it’s sometimes easy to bag them (I’m as guilty as the next person). But they also deserve some credit for taking those first steps. Sometimes those steps are incredibly difficult – with lots of competing interests, internal politics, inertia pushing back.

Sometimes it has taken an enormous effort from just a few people in an organisation to get those changes off the ground. As much as it’s easy to forget – companies are made up of people. If we bag out their efforts, it’s easy for them to throw their hands in the air and say “why bother?”

I, like Joel, am not saying businesses should be let off the hook. But I do think that the attack mentality that sometimes follows when businesses announce a new green initiative is counter productive. Sometimes it’s warranted too. Where that line is drawn is pretty difficult to determine – but perhaps thinking about it as if it were us making the change and responding accordingly might help put it in perspective.