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Are Companies Whitewashing Green Efforts?

March 21, 2011
Companies claim they are sustainable, but what does that really mean?

There is a lot of "greenwashing" going on in the corporate world. No matter where you look, advertising focuses on how good for the environment this or that product is, or how a company is socially responsible because of XYZ. Sustainability has become the new buzzword. The trouble is there isn't one set definition of sustainability. In fact, a 2006 study on corporate responsibility and the environment listed 37 different definitions of what it means to be sustainable.

Sustainability is often linked with environmentally friendly concerns – specifically greenhouse gas reduction or sequestration. While aiming to reduce the carbon footprint is admirable, does it really make a business sustainable? The short answer: No. Sustainability hinges on more than one initiative.

In order to avoid the brickbats that some have already picked up and are getting ready to hurl my way after reading the preceding paragraph, some definitions are in order.

The dictionary definition of sustainability is: "of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged." Wikipedia defines sustainability as: "the capacity to endure. In ecology, the word describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. For humans, sustainability is the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions."

In its purest form, almost any industrial or manufacturing activity is non-sustainable because it involves extraction of resources. The idea behind this is that everything has to come from somewhere or something. Cast iron has to be excavated as iron ore and worked before it is turned into steel.

Additionally, the energy required to make almost anything comes from some non-renewable source. (And, yes, I'm discounting solar, hydro, and nuclear because they require components and materials that are from extractive processes on non-renewable resources).

Ideas of sustainability vary form company to company. A large carpet company gets its energy from landfill gases while office-equipment maker Steelcase has made major strides toward reducing all of its emissions and wastes, and has made a substantial effort to involve employees and other corporations in its environmentally friendly recycle/refurbish/reuse programs for used office equipment. Yet another company in the oil industry boasts of its sustainability efforts in an attempt to change its public image. An oil company? Sustainable?  When your core business is extraction of irreplaceable hydrocarbons, how is that sustainable?

But using sustainability as a marketing message has been going on for years. In fact, a major hydrocarbon processing company touted its environmental performance by having a goldfish swim in its treated wastewater. And efforts to control the public image have grown ever since. Detergents, chemicals and even some disinfectants are being promoted as "environmentally friendly." In fact, "greenwashing" has become so pervasive that the Federal Trade Commission has developed guides to the advertising of environmental benefits.

This effort to "make nice" with Mother Nature is now finding its way to the corporate bottom line in many strange and unusual ways. One of the most interesting of these is the Triple Bottom Line, where a corporate statement now reports on the corporate efforts for sustainability by including People, Planet and Profit in reporting. We'll go into this a bit more in the next column. For now, pay attention to sustainable marketing messages and ask yourself, what exactly is sustainability?

David L. Russell, P.E., is Chemical Processing's Environmental Protection expert and web-exclusive columnist on the topic. He has worked in the chemical industry for nearly a decade. He owns and runs Global Environmental Operations, Inc. His work has taken him to Venezuela, Ecuador, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany, and Ghana. Currently, he is doing contract work on training in the Middle East (UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain).
His interests include cooking and tango dancing. He also has authored two books and over 30 articles on environmental topics. You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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