OMG, look how environmentally friendly this company is. (Photo by voltageek.)

Greenwashing is stupid and obnoxious. “Oh, we loovve the environment. We have 1) made our bottle green and 2) printed instructions on our boxes about how to put a can in a recycling bin!” Thank you, company! That is helpful and now I would like to give you money.

And now the punchline: Greenwashing is actually more helpful for businesses than sustainable practices. From

The authors found symbolic actions have a higher impact on market value than substantive actions, when the company has higher [corporate social responsibility]-based assets. The study also concluded that a larger gap between symbolic and substantive actions has a higher positive impact on firm performance; and the more companies engage in both symbolic and substantive actions, the higher the value accumulates to the company. …

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Symbolic actions can be more generally described as “window dressing” or greenwashing — essentially anything designed to give an appearance of an action while allowing business to proceed as usual.

In other words, here are the best things a company can do for its bottom line, in increasing order of benefit:

  1. Actually change practices in order to benefit the environment and society.
  2. Pretend to do that.
  3. Do both.

Jokes and loathing aside, it makes sense. Doing nothing is almost always cheaper than doing something. And things that are cheaper are better for saving money. (This is the kind of astute economic analysis for which you visit Grist, I am sure.)

On the plus side, no self-respecting company would ever seek out validation that it is better business to pretend to give a shit than to actually try and make the world better. On the minus side: ha ha ha.

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