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Weekly Discussion: Can The Public Prevent Corporate Greenwashing?

A recent post on Fastcompany.com by Jamey Boiter asked the question, "Can brands launch sustainable campaigns without being accused of greenwashing?"

But, I would like to take this question one step further and introduce the public. How can the general public prevent greenwashing?

Recently, there has been an incredible amount of large corporations getting on the green bandwagon. But, is it greenwashing? Is it just marketing to boost profits or are companies really dedicated to sustainability? What are companies' incentives to 'go green'? How should we, the public, hold greenwashing companies accountable? How can we discover greenwashing? How can we shape the decision making process for companies to avoid greenwashing?


1. Do your research. Make sure to check product chemicals and materials. Don't just believe the labeling, read the ingredients list for all natural products and materials. Stick to brands that you know are eco-friendly.

2. Hold greenwashing companies accountable. Don't buy from companies with history of greenwashing. Chances are if the truth is reflected in the sales, next time the company will not make the same mistake.

3. Be skeptical until proven environmentally safe. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Think about the life cycle of the product. Is the product chemical free? Can it be easily recycled? Does it contain post-consumer materials?

4. Be an advocate. Once you have done your research and backed it up with sound science, educate others with your knowledge and wisdom.

Walmart has recently developed a worldwide sustainability index initiative. The objective is to increase supply chain transparency and provide customers with product information. According to Walmart, "With this initiative, we are helping create a more transparent supply chain, driving product innovation and ultimately providing our customers with information they need to assess products’ sustainability"

The initiative is broken down into three steps 1) Supplier assessment 2) Lifecycle analysis database and 3) A simple tool for customers. Over 100,000 global suppliers will be evaluated on their own companies' sustainability. The key areas of the survey focus on energy, climate, material efficiency, natural resources, people and community. Walmart plans to collaborate with universities, suppliers and retailers to create a database of information on products’ lifecycles, from cradle to grave.

In addition to the sustainability index, Walmart has pledged to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from their global supply chain by the end of 2015. This is equivalent to 150 percent of the company's estimated global carbon footprint growth over the next 5 years.

The sustainability index initiative is one way for corporate companies to be sustainable and avoid greenwashing. Increasing the transparency of products to customers is the first step to check the sustainability of a company. The next step is to hold companies responsible if they do not meet expectations. In the post, Boiter suggests, "They [brand managers] must be students of their consumers to fully understand them." If a company is debating whether to incorporate sustainability into their business plan, consumers must strongly signal their tastes and preferences for sustainable business practices. The sustainability index initiative is the first step to," Create a new retail standard for the 21st century."

What do you think about Walmart's sustainability index? Should it be the new retail standard for the 21st century? How else can retail companies avoid greenwashing and be sustainable? Please share your thoughts.