Today most large companies like Exxon Mobil, Ford and GM issue slick reports extolling their efforts to conserve resources, use renewable energy or fund clean water supplies in developing countries. This emphasis on efforts to curb environmental harm while benefiting society is called corporate sustainability.
Once uncommon but now mainstream, this show of support for a greener and kinder business model might seem like a clear step forward. But many of these same companies are quietly using their political clout, often through industry trade associations, to block or reverse policies that would make the economy more sustainable. And because public policy raises the bar for entire industries, requiring that all businesses meet minimum standards, lobbying to block sound public policies can outweigh the positive impact from internal company initiatives.
This kind of corporate hypocrisy — what we call talking green while lobbying brown — is a form of greenwashing, in which companies trumpet their good deeds while hiding their efforts to block progress. As the past and present presidents of the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability, we are concerned that this greenwashing may delay by years or even decades steps that might solve sustainability problems, such as slowing the pace of climate change or ending the ocean plastic pollution crisis.
Sounding Good Yet Lacking Impact
We and our colleagues in the alliance have documented many business initiatives that fall short of the impact they claim. One of the best known was the chemical industry’s Responsible Care program, created after an explosion at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people in 1984. Strategy professors Andy King and Mike Lenox showed that participants actually made less progress in reducing their emissions of toxic chemicals than did nonparticipants. That prompted the industry to overhaul the program.
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