Tag Archives: Greenwashing

The Week in Ethics: The Challenge of Sustainability

Sustainability as a global movement has for more than 20 years had an aura of ambiguity, meaning different things to different companies – from PR strategies, to building trust and reputation, to marketing strategies, to being a core business strategy, to inspiring a vision that redefines a company. It has operated both like an umbrella, crowding under it many issues — including environmental, social, and economic — as well as a buffet from which companies, communities, and governments could address that which most directly impacted self-interest.

While PR/marketing ploys have often backfired and gotten the label greenwashing–Sara Lee’s Ecograin bread is a recent example – there are many illustrations of companies working with former critics. Lipton committed in 2007 to sourcing its tea from “sustainable, ethical sources” by 2015  and works with the Rainforest Alliance which certifies its teas and is duly noted on its labels.

Sustainability is about how products are sourced, made, distributed, and how the people involved with the products are treated and paid. It is also about the bigger picture of cause and effect on the global community. Consider that cities and their surrounding areas — where most businesses reside — take up about three percent of the earth’s surface while those who live and work in them consume more than 75 percent of the world’s natural resources.

In a survey McKinsey did earlier this year more than 50 percent of the nearly 2,000 executives polled considered sustainability very or extremely important in new product development, reputation building and overall corporate strategy.  However, only 30 percent say their companies actively seek opportunities to invest in sustainability or embed it in their business practices.

Strengthening brand trust and reputation was one of the strongest motivators for taking action on sustainability in a 2010 survey billed “A New Era of Sustainability” done by The UN Global Compact and Accenture. Nearly 800 CEOs globally responded (among others). While 96 percent of CEOs believe sustainability issues should be fully integrated into the strategy and operation of a company, 49 percent cite the complexity of implementation across functions as the most significant barrier to implementing a company-wide approach to sustainability.

This begs the question how did the companies who have fully committed to sustainability and redefined their businesses managed to overcome obstacles? It has to be about leadership, about a CEO having courage, believing that ultimately shareholders won’t be harmed. It has to be that in expecting there are answers to what a company can do to integrate sustainability into the strategy and operation of the company, you find those answers.

Take for example Ray C. Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface Inc. Anderson says in his 2009 Confessions of a Radical Industrialist that in 1994 when Interface was a petroleum-intensive modular carpet company he began to get questions from the field about customers asking what Interface was doing for the environment. He said he didn’t have an answer beyond complying with existing laws. So he created a company task force and before the group met, read a book given him by one of the task force invitees called The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, published in 1993.

Hawken’s book woke him up, Anderson said. Its message resonated about seeing what we take from the earth, the collateral damage we do, and what we waste. Anderson saw that global business and industry had to change their ways to survive. He looked at his company’s pollution stream – without a push from government or critics – and saw that while the company had two decades of substantial profits under its belt, “Interface consumed enough energy each year to light and heat a city,” and that each day just one of his plants sent six tons of carpet trimmings to local landfill.

Interface began a 26-year strategy to achieve its Mission Zero goal in 2020, to be “the number one place to work based on its undisputed leadership in environmental and social sustainability.” The results so far include: the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet has reduced the energy used to manufacture carpet by 43 percent, decreased Greenhouse gas emissions 44 percent in absolute terms, and the company has grown by a net sales of 27 percent.

More than the need to rebuild eroded trust with stakeholders, or even avoiding the ethical risks of business as usual, sustainability is about creating a viable, dynamic business model to ensure that a company, its products and services, its customers and the environment in which it operates can continue and grow.

Gael O’Brien, September 20, 2010

The Week in Ethics

You can read another column I wrote on sustainability in Business Ethics Magazine, October 6, 2010


The Ethics of Obesity Part II: Dying for Fast Food?

The second in a three part series on obesity

Obesity has a deeply emotional aspect that defies easy solutions. It remains to be seen what ethical leadership will emerge from the food, beverage, restaurant, and fast food industries in really addressing their part in the obesity crisis. The industries are being politically correct donating money and having promotions to advertise healthy life choices. They also offer “healthy” menu options, though critics charge the options aren’t always healthy.  The real problem is business as usual still creates menu choices that customers eat at their own peril.

Those marketing to the nearly 20 percent of youth who are obese or the 2 out of 3 Americans who are overweight/obese have a significant social responsibility. Through their ingredients and preparation, these industries are contributors to both the obesity crisis and the $147 billion annually in additional health care cost consequences.

Statistics on those overweight or obese have continued to climb. In 2008, obesity rose in nearly 25 states and decreased in none.  Jack in the Box is one of many companies who apparently make a disconnect between their offering products with clever marketing and the consequences to those who choose to eat them. It reintroduced their teriyaki bowls this year under the “Healthy Dining” category. The steak bowl has 1010 calories and 2270 mg. of sodium; the chicken at 980 calories has 1880 mg sodium. This head-in-the-box thinking would be healthy to whom?

This food equivalent of greenwashing, I call “healthdousing. It is insidious in its potential to mislead.  It is like Marketing arm wrestled Conscience and the winner was Rationalization —  because a benefit was identified, significant nutritional red flags can be ignored.

Fast food chains have created and marketed promotions that fly in the face of the obesity crisis. They also have considerable resources to fight back any challenges. Take the “super-size” menu promotion McDonald’s offered with gargantuan sizes and calories, including 7 oz fries and a 42 oz coke with the equivalent of 28 teaspoons of sugar. Morgan Spurlock did a documentary film on the consequences of his eating only McDonald’s food (and always a super-size option if asked) for 30 days – he gained 25 pounds and experienced liver problems and depression. McDonald’s aggressively attacked the film claimed it had no impact on their sales, but did drop its promotion about the time the 2004 film was released.

McDonald’s has an off-camera part in the Sundance Festival award-winning film “Precious” which opened last month. The Harlem teenagers in the film speak about McDonald’s reverentially. The film’s lead character, “Precious,” deals with her poverty, illiteracy, emotional and sexual abuse from her mother, repeated rape from her father, teenage parenthood, and her relationship to food.  In one scene, a maternity ward nurse played by Lennie Kravitz, is eating fruit, advocating eating healthy while “Precious” fantasizes about going to McDonald’s. Precious is starved throughout the film with a hunger deep within; yet she pushes through incredible  obstacles to create the best life she can.

So where does that leave us?  We’re facing a national crisis and the traditional model of consumer demand changing market offerings isn’t working. This isn’t like the auto industry where during soaring oil prices customers stopped buying gas guzzlers and demanded fuel efficient cars.

The call is for ethical leadership here because the demand for changes in nutritional content in food and beverages isn’t really coming from the overweight and obese consumer. And using that as the excuse not to do more is a shell game to avoid corporate responsibility. The pressure is being created by the government, medical experts, food advocates, research findings, and skyrocketing health care costs as a consequence of obesity. So the question is how will these companies respond?

The Ethics of Obesity Part III will look at a RAND study, work by Naked Chef Jamie Oliver, and Epode, a program in Europe achieving success in fighting obesity

Gael O’Brien, December 14, 2009

The Week in Ethics