After all the hugging and smooching of big corporations on Gristmill today, I thought I’d try to recapture our righteous insurgent credibility by linking to some primo corporation bashing, in the form of GreenLife’s just-released list of America’s Ten Worst Greenwashers.
But after reading it, I’m afraid I just can’t sign on. I may have to go back to being a Running Dog Whore for The Man.
I felt a sense of disquiet as I read through the list, and the reason why is captured perfectly in the "notes on methodology":
As its title implies, this report does not account for all greenwashers, only the worst. The companies profiled herein were selected due to the discrepancies between their environmental rhetoric and the reality of their environmental performance. By these criteria, some environmental laggards did not make the list because, for lack of interest or fear of backlash, they do not bother with greenwash. On the other side of the coin, some leaders were chosen because, though in reality their environmental performance far outpaced that of their competitors, their rhetoric was still more extreme.
So, in other words, corporations that don’t give a damn about the environment at all are specifically exempted from criticism — exempted, in fact, by virtue of not giving a damn. Even corporations that give X amount of a damn, but talk as if they give X+1 amount of a damn, come under fire.
This is, in short, equivalent to the ubiquitous charge of hypocrisy — a charge that, while easy and fun to make, does little to advance substantive discussion on matters of import.
Ideal, from my perspective, would be for a corporation to make genuine commitments to environmental stewardship and to issue only those public statements that are factually accurate in regard to those commitments. I also want a pony and an ice cream cone.
But I don’t live in a perfect world. The world I live in is characterized by some pretty deep structural incentives for corporations to place short-term profit over sustainability. The countervailing pressures — from government regulation, advocacy and shareholder groups, and the public at large — are tenuous, and the first of the three is under constant attack.
What we need is a cultural environment in which environmental stewardship is the norm, in which it is assumed that corporations do what they can for sustainability. A good way to create that environment is to increase, not decrease, the amount of green talk from corporate PR departments. Let ’em all start talking about it. Make not talking about it seem strange and conspicuous. The more talk there is about it, the higher the chances that some percentage of them are going to take it seriously. Despite their reputation in lefty circles as ruthless automata, corporations, and the people that run them, are subject to social and peer pressure.
As I’ve said before, what lists like this — and, I fear, the green establishment generally — do is create a perverse disincentive for corporations to pay any heed at all to sustainability. The minute they pop up on greenies’ radars, they come in for this kind of bashing about hypocrisy. The bashing is an easy route to some publicity, but it doesn’t do much good. I can’t imagine that any of these corporations are going to read this kind of stuff and feel inspired to do better.
No, we should be welcoming the gestures — the sincere ones, the slightly-exaggerated ones, even the verging-on-empty ones — and saying, "yes, good work, you’re getting the idea … now here’s how to do it a little better. Here’s the next step." We should be a partner, a cheerleader. We’re trying to create an atmosphere where corporations benefit from dipping their toes in the sweet, clear pool of sustainability.