Beyond greenwashing: how can brands solve for climate change?

May 24, 2022 | Publications

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On August 9th 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body that oversees advancement of knowledge on human-induced climate change, released a damning report that demonstrates through clear scientific evidence, the unprecedented scale of the climate crisis. 

The report sent out a clear message that the rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, caused by massive emissions, is causing irreversible changes including rising sea levels on a scale not observed in the last ten thousand years. Rising sea levels are expected to swallow cities and cause mass migration. Some of these are already in motion across the world.

So, the question is, when we know that destruction is imminent why don’t we come together and stop it? Well, it is not that easy. It is much more complex, simply because thwarting the climate crisis is a systemic problem that requires a corporation to do an end-to-end revamp of their existing systems, since most large corporations have historically relied (and still rely) heavily on fossil fuels to run their operations.

Earth has already heated up to 1.1° C from the pre-industrial levels (starting mid 19th century). And there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that we need to prevent the temperatures from breaching a threshold of 1.5° C before 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. This requires a radical shift in the way corporations operate, the most critical of which is complete end-to-end phasing out fossil fuels from their systems, direct (e.g. manufacturing operations) and indirect (e.g. source of power). While this is perhaps a gargantuan radical task, we have no other option.

As the effects of climate change are beginning to become visible, consumers are being woken up to the reality of what is causing this. This has started to put an overwhelming pressure on corporations to act. While this is a good thing, often what we are witnessing is these corporations resorting to what is called ‘greenwashing’ where they implement band-aid ‘solutions’ and promote them as their initiative and contribution towards saving the planet without addressing the root cause.

Large corporations give their consumers a falsified notion of having contributed to the planet under that label of sustainability, when in reality, they have done nothing about cutting emissions, but rather undertake band-aid solutions like tree planting drives.

Other deceptive ways of greenwashing is to use buzz words like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘natural’, ‘recyclable’ in their product promotions, while in reality, again, the root cause remains unaddressed.

In an era of rapid climate change it is critical for companies to introspect on whether their initiatives towards climate crisis is a band-aid response or a response to the systemic nature of the problem.

Being the consumer facing identity of the products that these corporations produce (predominantly from fossil fuels), brands have a large role to play in helping prevent the climate catastrophe by contributing to a larger systemic change.

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Make sustainability part of brand’s core essence rather as a peripheral ‘goodwill initiative’

Sustainability has to become the norm. Brands need to build in sustainability as a part of their core essence. Sustainability can no longer be based on good-will. It has be based on accountability and responsibility. Accountable and responsible brands will also automatically move away from greenwashing consumers and systemically move towards a sustainable future.

This will mean infusing sustainable processes across every touch point from raw material and utility sourcing, manufacturing, product supply chain, post-usage lifecycle, marketing and communication.

No product can be truly ‘green’ unless every part of the product eco-system is kept away from climate-harming emissions.

Be a front-runner by educating the consumer on climate change

While consumers are witnessing the effects of climate change every day, not everyone is completely aware of why this is happening. It may still be an active conversation happening within elite sections of the population.

Brands, with their massive reach, have a role and capabilities in bringing conversations about climate change to the mainstream by educating the consumer in simple language. Brands have the power to shape, expand and elevate the conversation around climate change through their influence on the consumer and their psyche.

 Make sustainability affordable

One of the ways in which corporations greenwash consumers is to charge premiums on ‘sustainable products’ (which may or may not be sustainable after all). This makes sustainability a ‘choice’ and not the norm. For those who may not be able to afford these products, sustainable product choice will remain unreachable. Brands have the moral duty to make sustainability the norm so that it is equally accessible to all.

Collaboration and collective effort is the key

As much as competing against competitors is an important task for every brand, it is also the right opportunity and time for collaboration. The only solution to climate change is for us all to put a collective foot forward. Brands, with their power and reach, can create ripple effects when efforts against climate change are done in collaboration with other brands. Brands should operate with a ‘we’ mindset rather than an ‘I’ mindset to meaningfully be a part of the battle against climate change.

We, the human species, have brought this catastrophe upon ourselves by meddling with the very natural eco-systems that we need for our own survival. It is therefore our own collective responsibility as human kind to make sure we prevent this catastrophe. One of the most critical contributors and influencers in making this happen will be responsible brands.

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