by: Jennifer Rice

Last week I wrote about lessons learned from Liberty Mutual’s focus on responsibility. The Wall Street Journal provides some much better, albeit disappointing, examples in their list of top 10 greenwashers. GE, what on earth are you thinking? I have been searching for good examples of companies that are delivering corporate social opportunity (profitably aligning brand with social impact) and finding woefully few.

GE’s Ecomagination had been a good role model in my mind for a) aligning their core mission with environmental impact and b) creating profitable products and services that deliver on that mission.  Yet this article shows that GE is a poster child for “good theory, poor execution.” While I don’t believe that using historical pollution stats from 1947 - 1977 is entirely fair (hey, people change), continuing to be in the top 10 of the Toxic 100 list is clearly a huge concern. At least they’ve dropped to #7 in 2008 compared to #4 in 2006.

That said, I do agree with Kathrin Winkler (of EMC) who wrote in a guest post on Kevin Moss’ (of BP) blog:

“there are other less worthy targets for the (greenwashing) label. There is the slightly naïve company (or, more likely, marketing communications person) who is genuinely proud of positive steps that were taken in their own right, but hasn’t looked at them in the greater context of materiality…. What about the more aggressive companies that push the edge of the envelope, by necessity running up against the untested and controversial, and then getting slapped down for their efforts?… And then there’s the “whitespace” situation in which a company is doing something relevant and material, so gets chastised for something else they haven’t (yet) done, even if it’s far less material.”

I’d add a fourth consideration to Kathrin’s list: the context of each individual industry. So while BP also showed up on the list of top 10 greenwashers, I’m not entirely sure it belongs there. The company is emerging from an entrenched position in an unsustainable category, and it takes time to turn the Titanic without compromising current shareholders. The article says that it spent “a paltry 6.8% of BP’s total revenue on alternative energy,” yet it fails to put that into context of other energy companies which it outspends. Why are we bashing BP as much as Exxon, whose CEO  refuses to even get on board? In an article last year about lawmakers’ criticism of big oil:

“Markey hammered Exxon’s Simon over the company’s investment in renewable energy. “Why is Exxon Mobil resisting the renewable energy revolution?” asked Markey. Simon said Exxon has given $100 million to Stanford to study renewables. “$100 million?” said Markey. “But you made $40 billion last year.”

IMO, criticizing BP is like criticizing the turtle for not being as fast as the hare. It’s still leading all the other turtles. Before we start throwing the greenwashing label around, I think it’s important to consider a) the context of the industry and competitive activities, and b) demonstrated improvements over time. Let’s give some credit where credit’s due, even if companies aren’t yet living up to ideal standards. It’s a journey and we’re nowhere close to the finish line, but I think we’re making progress.

I’d love to generate a discussion on this subject. How do you separate fair from unfair criticism? What’s the real dividing line between a greenwasher and a company with good intentions but just can’t change fast enough to please everyone?

Original Post: http://www.fruitfulstrategy.com/blog/2009/04/fair-criticism/

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