If the year is 1983 and you find yourself in Fiji looking at a notice asking you to reuse your hotel towels for the sake of the environment, then your name is probably Jay Westerveld and you’re about to come up with the term “greenwashing”.
Mr. Westerveld was lodging in a beach resort undergoing large, expensive developments that were detrimental to the local environment and the irony of their plea didn’t go unnoticed. This practice of misleading environmentalism has been around since at least the 1960s and is still rife today: from oil conglomerates to airlines, the eco-hypocrisy fueled by prevalent profit-over-planet mentality has caused mass scepticism of anything labeled “green”.
Some notable examples of greenwashing in recent years include Nestlé, who in 2018 stated its ‘ambitions’ to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025, without actually providing any targets or timeline to achieve this. Similarly in 2019, fast-fashion manufacturer H&M released a line of “green” clothing named ‘Conscious’, specifically inferring the environmental benefits of the collection in their advertising, but failing to provide any substantial definitions on the sustainability of the clothes. Or quite simply Coca-Cola, the largest plastic polluter in the world sponsoring the United Nations climate summit, COP27.. As the world began to value brands with environmental consciousness, brands began to see the value of appearing environmentally conscious, and this birthed the faux opportunity to make grandiose but unattested pledges to the well-being of our planet.
The environmental cosplaying performed by large multinationals had the unfortunate consequence of raising the public eyebrow towards all corporate attempts on environmentalism. This was especially evident in the real estate industry, and for good reason. The pioneers of the green movement provided certifications that on the surface level had the same baseless, vague, pat-yourself-on-the-back sentiment of greenwashing. The theory was good: buildings as a whole are carbon-intensive, so those that are resource efficient will be labeled ‘green’, and those that aren’t will be ‘brown’ – or something to the same extent.
The initial definitions of green buildings thus revolved heavily around the concept of resource efficiency in construction and operation. But how do they measure resource efficiency? And how do they continue the measurement of a building’s performance? All the way through the evolution of the concept of green buildings, into the 1990s and beyond, it was nigh impossible for real estate investors – let alone tenants – to gather viable information on a building’s environmental performance other than an initial certification by BREEAM, LEED, or another such awarding body. And even then, trying to figure out a building’s environmental performance based on its certification is a bit like trying to guess someone’s job by their haircut. The data is two dimensional, and on its own is insufficient to encourage the real, meaningful change needed to drive global environmental goals.
The Achilles heel of greenwashing is transparency, and the real estate green movement was highly commendable in its efforts to encourage this with the environmental evaluation of buildings. But transparency is hard to achieve without data. Good quality, accessible data. We’re in the midst of a transition to the age of ESG, which means that certifications on their own are no longer adequate. We need a sharp focus on data-driven transparency to ensure that the correct decisions are made; where to invest our money, which businesses to avoid, where to give a helping hand. If everyone had open access to companies’ CO2 reports, it would be easy to separate the walkers from the talkers. And with accessible, transparent, and mandatorily reported ESG data, greenwashing would go from public subterfuge to data fraud.
While ESG frameworks undergo scrutiny and scepticism on the presumption of being just another failed green movement, it is ever important to put data at the strategic forefront and drive transparency to erase all public doubts and ensure the longevity of the movement. As we accelerate to a point of no return, we need the legs of environmental change to slam on the brakes, ideally, now. How well, and how quickly the brakes work will be in part facilitated by corporate accountability, which is enabled by transparency which in turn, is led by access to data.
Want to read more like this? Check out ‘How bad are buildings? The past, present and future of ESG’