Don’t look sustainable, be sustainable

By: RICK VAN DER LINDEN | 26-02-2020 | 3 min read
A very big pitfall in communication about sustainability is being completely honest about environmental performance. Many companies get involved with footprint calculations, LCA and carbon compensation mainly for the sake of marketing. While it’s fine to use these tools for promotional purposes, it should only be a side benefit.

Environmental Performance

When communication goes so far that it skews results to make a product seem (more) sustainable, we are talking about greenwashing. I’ll go through a few common greenwashing examples so that you don’t make the same mistake. Always remember this: don’t lie to your customer!

Compensation makes something sustainable

As explained in my earlier blog about compensation, the mere act of compensation does not make something sustainable in the long run. A car driving on carbon compensated fuel does not make it “green”. Forget the discussion about which compensation method is used; by driving you still use finite resources and emit other harmful substances. Consumers might even think that by buying the compensation, they can now use their cars more because it’s now good for the environment! This of course is the idea behind this marketing strategy, but is it morally acceptable?

LCA cherry-picking

LCA is not foolproof. There are many ways to manipulate results in your favor. For wooden products, for instance, you can include the amount of carbon stored in that product, but exclude the waste phase, in which the carbon is released back into the atmosphere. This could give the impression that the product is carbon positive.

Wishful thinking

In comparative analyses, often a company compares its product with alternatives in the market. To do this, certain assumptions will have to be made on the impact of the alternative. These assumptions can be chosen to be favorable for the company’s product. For example, when comparing a paper coffee cup with a ceramic coffee cup, you could assume the paper version will be used for multiple cups of coffee during the day instead of just once. he same goes for a comparison of materials for packaging, for instance, sleeves for plants. The waste scenario can have a big impact on the result. Assuming a paper sleeve is burned while the plastic version is recycled can alter the outcome. In reality, only a small percentage of those plastic sleeves will be truly recycled, depending on the supply chain and the region’s recycling system.

Manipulation by method

My “favorite” greenwashing example is allowing credits into the calculation. Here’s how that works: Say that you use a lot of solar panels. So many, that you produce more electricity than you need. You could then say: my solar electricity replaces electricity that would’ve been produced by the national power grid. So, my electricity production prevents emissions from the grid. Let’s say that the carbon emissions that I thus save, I subtract from the total emissions of my factory. Oh look, now my product is climate positive! The same can be done with recycling: I put my plastic products on the market and in the end, they will be recycled so that no new plastic needs to be produced!

Act, then tell

Instead of searching for a way to ‘explain your emissions away’, focus on actually reducing your emissions. Then tell that great and factually correct story to everyone who will hear it. In the end, it should also give you a competitive advantage to be the better alternative, rather than to pretend to be it.   Image by Drajt from Pixabay
Rick van der Linden profile picture
Rick van der Linden

After a Master's degree in Industrial Design Engineering with a focus on sustainability and circular economy, now active as sustainability consultant in horticulture. Calculating environmental impact using LCA and assisting companies in their sustainable efforts is my daily activity for Greenhouse Marketeers.


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