Seventh Generation's greenwashing trifecta

The Greenwash Brigade responds to Jeffrey Hollender's interview with Marketplace's Sarah Gardner. Check back with the blog throughout the day as Hollender joins in the commenting.

Siegelbaum: I like Jeffrey Hollender's "greenwashing trifecta."

Look at the whole company, not the product: This is a pragmatic approach but occasionally a product is so blatantly lipstick-on-a-pig that it speaks volumes about a company's integrity, soundness of judgment and how it balances its green R&D with its sales rhetoric -- the product almost becomes a proxy for the entire company. People do tend to judge books (and wine labels) by their cover. Unfortunately, the product and its accompanying advertising is often all a consumer has to judge a company by unless that company creates an easy gateway to find CSR reports,
G3 reports (from the Global Reporting Initiative) and its behind the scenes political activity. This gets us into superficial greenwashing assessment versus deep corporate values assessment and asset valuation.

Want more juice? Go to Source Watch and what I call the goody bag of corporate research. Listening to the interview I was thinking about the effects of the trade association paradox which makes so many associations poised for obstructionist rhetoric rather than problem solving. That's where Toyota made its terrible misstep in conjunction with its automobile trade associations which lobbied heavily against increasing fuel mileage standards federally. It has cost Toyota its intangible goodwill asset value in the court of public opinion.

Sometimes we get trapped in a greenwashing conversation when what we are really addressing are the core values of a company and the trajectory its heavy engines are on.

Companies are not monoliths. There are small internecine wars waging between investors, innovators in-house and anachronistic Boards clutching to a 1950s business model that is making America uncompetitive. It is this sometimes schizophrenic path that drives greenwashing. We need companies to lead with the model of Corporation2020 and our policy makers to create a sustainable economic development model (Hollender and Seventh Generation support Corporation2020 and provide advisory services to them).

Honest, accurate advertising: Most labels can probably only carry the weight of honesty and not accuracy. The latter would require a few yards of labeling, but advertisements are a different matter. Selling "natural" products is irresistible but legally it means nothing. I'd opt for accuracy on a Web site and settle for honesty on the label. And as we've said before, if you don't have 200 ingredients on a label it's a lot easier to offer both.

Transparency: I wholeheartedly agree. This will be -- and is -- the most difficult step for most companies to make. But it's also where a supportive business and client community -- that recognizes the continuum of change -- can help promote green products and investments.

I like what GE is doing with Ecomagination but what does it say about them when they spend billions fighting to avoid cleaning up PCB-contaminated rivers, one very local to my own history? Is it greenwash? Can a Toyota's Prius be a foil to their lobbying against systematic changes in federal CAFE standards? Where's the beef?

Nicolow: While I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what Hollender said, I can't help wondering if we're asking the right questions.

For Hollender, the question is "how can you evaluate whether a corporation is green," and he proposes three criteria for making that determination (paraphrasing):
1) don't be a hypocrite - you can't sell a green product & a brown product
2) don't lie - don't say a brown product is a green product
3) don't hide - let the public see what you're doing

For Hollender, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. Almost no one would meet Hollender's criteria, including his own Seventh Generation, and Clorox certainly won't get there overnight.

But, as Heidi points out, corporations are not monoliths. I think the question is: how can we rapidly transition to a more sustainable paradigm?

Rather than an all-or-nothing evaluation that no corporations could currently meet, I think we have more hope of catalyzing rapid change by celebrating the responsible products & activities that any corporation is involved in (as well as publicizing the bad). Seventh Generation should be celebrated for their many green products and operations, AND we should give them hell for the products that contained a known carcinogen. Bravo to Toyota for the Prius, but shame on them for fighting stricter CAFE standards. Sustainability is a direction, not a destination, and we need to celebrate any turns in the right direction.

Flisrand: This is a nice shift in sustainability coverage - from sustainable products to companies. Hollender's points strike me as sound. But how many consumers care? And for the few of us who do, how will we find out who "passes"?

This isn't my area of expertise, but I "get" sustainability and I'm smart enough, so I decided to check out Seventh Generation by following Heidi's links.

Folks, finding information turned out to be hard.

After 5 minutes, I realized her link to G3 reports is where to start. After 8 minutes there, I realize the the reports are found somewhere else, Corporate Register.com. When I tried to search for Seventh Generation, I noticed you have to sign up and sign in to search for reports. Going through the sign-up process, I learned I wasn't permitted to use Hotmail, AOL, yahoo! or similar e-mail accounts - what I think of as e-mail for the masses. (Thankfully, .gmail isn't banned.) Next, you have identify why you care, and the drop-down menu doesn't include consumer. The list: "corporate CSR professionals, CSR consultants, government, investors and analysts, media/journalists, NGOs & charities, academics, students, and other/support services." As a consumer, I chose "other" and then I had to select from a second, even more alienating list - think accountants.

I did eventually get through and found the 45-page long Seventh Generation PDF. I started skimming it and things sound pretty good, but I lost interest around page 25. Maybe I can find a more accessible source?

Scroogle, here I come. The first two hits were on the Seventh Generation site (Hollender's blog, and that 45-page report.) Not exactly unbiased. A press release that they'd released their 45-page report. Ah - here's a press release titled "Seventh Generation Honored with the National Corporate stewardship Award from the US Chamber of Commerce." And an Ethical Corporation page too, appreciating that Seventh Generation's 2004 report highlights "deficiencies in its corporate responsibility programmes." That seems useful. Ok, now I'm tired of this.

45 minutes after I'd started looking, I realize that I have slightly more evidence supporting my gut instinct - Seventh Generation seems to be a good company, CSR-wise.

What I actually learned is that using Hollender's criteria is time-consuming, and few consumers (myself included) are likely to bother very often.

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