‘Climate words’ can accelerate ‘climate deeds’

28 Maret 2023
By Sonja Trierweiler

When notable environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in the 1980s, it was a cheeky but revolutionary rebuke of what he saw as deception, even deceit, on the part of the hotel industry. Some 40 years later, the term is now a mainstay of global climate communications, a pejorative justifiably cast against companies using clever language to make misleading claims to climate do-gooderism.

And companies are getting better at it. A growing number of them are taking great pains to persuade you, me and their stakeholders into believing that they are more capable agents of climate action than they really are. By standing-up poetic mission statements, offering tempting “green” choices, and even partnering with trusted influencers, companies are charming us into surrendering our skepticism.

Worse still, companies are succeeding in engendering a sense of altruism among us and within their own houses, enabling them to continue embellishing their incremental, oftentimes unverifiable changes to their climate impacts.

This disingenuousness is dangerous. It not only deflects due scrutiny, but exacerbates the market, political, and socio-cultural collective action problems that delivered the climate crisis in the first place.

The defining challenge of our times — the task of achieving economy-wide decarbonization in alignment with Paris Agreement goals — is as complex as it is urgent, With its latest report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued its “final” call for transformative climate action. We need large-scale adoption of low and zero-carbon technologies.

Photo: Pixabay/StockSnap

We need public and private investment in the development and commercialization of these solutions. And we need government-backed incentives and rules that will accelerate the adoption of these solutions.

Yet, if anything, the ubiquity of increasingly effective greenwashing, and now, even “greenhushing” underscores one part of the decarbonization puzzle that’s often overlooked.

Indeed, a zero emissions world with a thriving carbon neutral economy isn’t going to happen if we remain mired in what my organization, the Global Network for Zero, calls “Net Zero No Man’s Land” — a fragile, sluggish limbo somewhere between greenwashing and greenhushing, and far behind what we know humanity is capable of.

This is a job for marketers and other corporate communicators, myself included. It’s incumbent upon us to show that companies’ adoption of credibly effective climate solutions — regardless of whether that action was incentivized or required — really is the right, and yes, even advantageous choice.

Our job is to eliminate doubt and reluctance. We have to provide the evidence business leaders need to let go of their fears of capital equipment costs, operational disruptions, or whatever else they think precludes their action, especially with regard to their large and difficult to manage Scope 3 emissions.

Companies that elevate and amplify their climate change mitigation and adaptation success stories will redress outdated cost-benefit analyses. With time, demand for the technologies and managerial best practices that companies use to achieve net zero will grow, driving competition and innovation among solutions providers and, in turn, accelerate the scale-up of their offerings.

Admittedly, it won’t always be easy. Rather than greenhushing, or “strategic silence,” corporate communicators have a responsibility to be forthcoming and transparent about their companies’ failures to rein in their emissions. In the same way that stories of success drive demand for decarbonization solutions, stories of failure will precipitate supply.

Technologists, financiers, and management consultants are far more inclined to invest in the research, development, and commercialization of products and services that have a determinate market to serve.

There are bound to be skeptics. But successful corporate climate communication is about so much more than the amplification of stories of climate successes and failures. As GreenBiz Chairman Joel Makower highlighted in a frustrated opinion on the state of sustainability communications writ large, there is a glaring need for articulation, too.

Corporate climate success stories need context, specificity and even prescriptiveness. Making the net zero alignment of one firm decision-useful for another entails more than detailing what drove success. It means detailing how that process was executed, how that process affects the companies’ overall sustainability performance — and how these achievements affect their stakeholders.

Likewise, stories of corporate climate shortcomings need to do more than show what targets were missed. Companies’ investors, employees, partners, regulators, customers, and of course, prospective solutions providers need to know what obstructed their path to success, and equally important, how they plan to change course.

This is not to say, however, that louder and clearer communications will solve the corporate climate problem on its own. Regulation, namely the corporate climate risk disclosure rule being considered by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and government-backed incentives for action, including the funds provided by the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, are important levers.

But so, too, is individual action, albeit not in the way it’s typically promoted by companies.

Hanging in the balance, though, is the health and wellbeing of ourselves and companies’ bottom lines. Another question that corporate communicators need to be prepared to answer, then, is what does your company have to lose from stepping up?

Sonja Trierweiler is vice president of community development at the Global Network for Zero.

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