How to be Sustainable without Greenwashing -

26 October 2017

How to be Sustainable without Greenwashing

It’s not easy being green. Just ask Volkswagen: they’re about to drop $15B to clean up their diesel mess. Although VW may have cheated, even aboveboard companies live in fear of getting their hands slapped. Greenwashing— making something sound more environmentally friendly than it actually is — can deter customers or even tangle you up in a costly lawsuit.

When it comes to environmental claims, EHS professionals play a crucial role in keeping your company’s promises. In this article, we’ll demystify what every EHS pro needs to know to be sustainable without greenwashing.

1. Get certified by an approved third party.

According to FTC guidelines, certifications and seals of approval must be from an approved third party. In other words, your company can’t create its own logos or seals for environmental claims—that would be greenwashing.

Here are some of popular third party certifications that demonstrate your company’s commitment to the environment:

  • ISO 14001: ISO 14001 certification demonstrates your company’s commitment to continuous environmental improvement and sustainability.
  • LEED: This worldwide green building certification rates your facility’s design and operation on areas like water efficiency and CO2 emissions.
  • EPA Safer Choice: The Safer Choice label helps consumers and commercial buyers identify products that are safer for people and the environment.
  • Energy Star: An Energy Star certified product (or building) must meet strict energy performance standards set by EPA.
  • Forest Stewardship Council: This certification shows that your products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits.

2. Back up your claims with proof.

Even if you get certified, you’ll still need to substantiate any claims related to your certification.

Generic claims like “green” and “eco-friendly” are a big no-no. There’s no set definition for these terms, so what you mean when you say your product or service is “green” and what your customers understand can be two very different things.

A review by TerraChoice, part of Underwriter’s Laboratories, found that 95% of self-declared “green” products were guilty of greenwashing.

How to avoid marketing bluster? Be sure to connect your environmental claims to a specific, qualified benefit.

For example, if your product is labeled “now made with renewable energy”, you should clearly state which type of renewable energy, the percentage used, and sources.

An energy management software can help you defend your claims by capturing details of energy use, including sources (i.e. natural gas, steam, coal, etc.) for quick reporting.

3. Implement an environmental management system.

Of course, it’s not enough to talk about “being green”. Consumers will quickly discern which companies are blowing smoke and which ones have social responsibility baked into their business model.

In fact, a sales analysis by Nielsen showed that brands with a commitment to sustainability grew over 4%, while those without grew less than 1%.

An environmental management system (EMS) like ISO 14001 can help you document and demonstrate your company’s commitment to the environment.

You’ll be able to point to your EMS as proof when customers or shareholders ask about your company’s efforts to reduce environmental impacts like air and water pollution, waste management, and pollution.

4. Be transparent.

So how do you communicate your environmental efforts to your customers and shareholders? One idea that’s picking up steam is an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this already.

Sony, Target, and American Express are among the thousands of companies making it a point to publish an annual CSR report.

To that end, environmental management software can help you develop goals, track progress, and document your actions.

  • Send out surveys so facilities can enter water, waste, and other sustainability metrics directly into your computer system
  • Roll up all your metrics into corporate totals
  • Calculate your carbon footprint
  • Create KPIs based on performance
  • Create action plans based on KPIs and break them into trackable subtasks (for example, if your goal is to reduce water usage by 2%, you can break this up into subtasks like installing low pressure nozzles, creating water restriction periods, and conducting training)
  • Pull data into graphs/charts to include in your CSR report  
  • Compare data to previous years

5. Think about the entire lifecycle of your product.  

Perhaps the most obvious way to be sustainable without greenwashing is to actually improve your products and processes.

Savvy consumers will be looking at the entire lifecycle of a product — like where materials come from and whether the packaging is recyclable — so you should be too.

According to ISO 14001:

Some of the organization’s significant environmental impacts can occur during the transport, delivery, use, end-of-life treatment or final disposal of its product or service. By providing information, an organization can potentially prevent or mitigate adverse environmental impacts during these life cycle stages.

How can you minimize your environmental impact?

An environmental management system like ISO 14001 can help you identify and document improvements:

  • Choose suppliers who display ISO certification.
  • Look for local suppliers to minimize transportation.
  • Develop methods to minimize waste during production.
  • Switch to recyclable packaging.

So what’s an honest company to do? Let’s recap:

  1. Get certified by an approved third party.
  2. Back up your claims with proof.
  3. Implement an environmental management system.
  4. Be transparent.
  5. Think about the entire lifecycle of your product.

Want to learn more about ISO 14001 and how it can help your company meet its sustainability goals? Check out our resource page on ISO 14001 environmental management.