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We all know what we mean by green, don’t we?  Green in the modern vernacular is a (generally) positive adjective. ‘Green’ prompts associations with nature and the natural world, and conjures up images of life, growth, health and all things good.

We also know that a successful business needs a positive reputation to continue growing.  In recent years, there has been a notable rise in social consciousness from businesses who have realised that this is the way to gain positive profile and – thanks to an enhanced reputation and greater customer trust – to deliver increased profits.  In the best cases, the positive coverage reflects a tangible action. Tesco’s recent partnership with Loop to provide a minimal waste shopping experience boosted the image of its brand both in the media and with its customers.

It seems quite common, however, to see brands greenwashing their reputation, virtue-signalling in a drive to increase their customer base rather than actually delivering the values they are publicly claiming as their own.  The examples are numerous.  One of the most infamous is BP’s Twitter pledge where in October 2019, the oil giant tweeted asking the public to pledge to reduce their carbon footprint.  The backlash was perhaps to be expected for a business which was still committed to, and largely focused on, producing oil and gas.

Other examples include McDonald’s switching to paper straws for recycling purposes and the H&M clothes recycling exchange scheme for store credit.  It was later revealed the straws were not recyclable, and since fast fashion is responsible for a huge amount of carbon emissions, water wastage, and landfill, no amount of recycling to prompt more buying is environmentally friendly.

Some would say you cannot have a green oil company, a green fast food company, or a green fast fashion company, whatever the company’s public pronouncements.  However, whatever your opinion on the green credentials of big business, the shift in these companies promoting themselves as ‘green’ is indicative of positive public sentiment towards the concept.

Cashing in on popular movements rather than demonstrating real action is not unique to business. The government has also been quicker to jump on the green bandwagon of labels than to fundamentally change its policies.  The recently announced ‘Green Homes Grant’ has been met with some scepticism by industry experts who warn that the policy will not have a long-term impact on helping the housing sector reduce its carbon footprint.

Equally, the much-vaunted green recovery has prompted accusations of greenwashing as the term indicates something short term that quickly bounces the economy back to health, rather than acknowledging the climate crisis which was recognised well before Covid-19.  How can any recovery be green if it returns us to the status quo of climate crisis?

The wider implications of ‘green’ originate in a pre-pandemic world.  ‘Green’ is used in political discourse accompanying demands for long-term action against climate change.  It is a commitment to a green future that we need, not just a quick green recovery (although we need that too).

The hypocrisy of green self-promotion which is not accompanied by action is nearly always recognised by the public.  This forces brands and businesses into a choice between acting on the commitments claimed or disappointing the target audience and risking losing their engagement.  After years of claiming environmental credentials while continuing full-scale oil production, on 4 August 2020, BP committed to reducing fossil fuel production by 40 per cent by 2030.  Finally, action to accompany the green words.

We can’t just label things green and hope we’ve dealt with the problem.  Actions speak louder than words and that applies to the word green too.

Katherine Wingate is a senior account executive at Camargue