Green vs. Greening vs. Greenwashing: A Grey Area

Posted on February 22, 2021 by Duncan Sparke

The logic chain of carbon reduction sounds straightforward and it goes like this: Carbon is bad, reducing carbon is good; therefore companies that produce a lot of carbon emissions are bad, and reducing these companies is good. Simple.

To a large extent, that sums up the philosophy of the environmentally-minded investment community, and particularly the big institutional investors which control swathes of global capital. Just the other day, three of New York’s vast public employee pension funds divested $4 billion from securities related to fossil fuel companies in a move that most would view as commendable, if not vital for the future of our planet.

A Carbon Admission

However, as several people, including Mark Carney, have been at pains to admit, the world can’t simply switch off fossil fuels and switch on green energy. Energy infrastructure is in the expert hands of energy companies, and these have all until recently been heavily reliant on the only form of energy that was cost effective: carbon.

By divesting money and support from fossil fuel businesses and instead supporting green businesses, we are helping the growth of the green tech sector and supporting sustainability, but are we helping the world transition quickly and efficiently away from its carbon habit? Probably not.

On the other hand, are we willing to carry on blindly supporting fossil fuel businesses in the vague hope that they channel our support into rapid transition activities? Heck no. So how do we know where to get the best environmental return on investment? How do we know who the high potential, high impact “greening” businesses are, not just the already “green” businesses who lack the same potential to accelerate transition. More to the point, how do we distinguish greening businesses from the laggards without the meaningful intent to speed their transition?

The Communication Challenge

This is among the critical challenges that marketers and communicators now face: how do we effectively reflect the strategy and genuine intent of greening businesses and show the world who they are and what they are striving to achieve?

The importance of this communications challenge extends well beyond the investment community, or even business leaders. It extends right down to the engagement of each individual worker on the factory floor. Bernard Looney, CEO of bp, likes to tell the story of the oil refinery worker he met on a visit who personally thanked Mr Looney for bp’s Net Zero by 2050 strategy – a policy that would ultimately make his skillset redundant, but that he knew would make the world his children will inherit a better place.

It is this broad engagement with the subject of the environment that places so much potential, and also so much risk, with the communicator.


Amid the efforts to communicate the virtues of earnest transition there is also the harsh reality of greenwashing, where insincere or lacklustre environmental efforts are passed off as more than they are. However, it could be argued that the threat of being labelled as “greenwashers” is a valuable incentive for communications teams as it forces businesses to leave no ambiguity. Instead they must underline all that they say with firm evidence of their intent, their approach and their progress.

This is a challenge and an opportunity that puts marketers at the centre of a historical pivot. By effectively communicating the genuine efforts of the critically important “greening” businesses, and distinguishing them from the hollow words of the greenwashers, the marketing community has the potential to become the stewards of transition, signposting investment and raising standards, to facilitate the realisation of a net zero economy.

If you’re interested in hearing more about how your business can fit into this conversation and highlight your own role as a green or greening stakeholder in global carbon transition, get in touch with me directly at [email protected] or reach out to us: [email protected]


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