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This Is Worse Than Greenwashing

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Note: this video covers the same topic.


When it comes to environmental management, sustainability, action on climate change and especially communicating your organization’s sustainability journey…

What could be worse than greenwashing?

(Greenwashing, as you know, is exaggerating or fabricating environmental credentials.)

I believe it’s this: Breaking your company down into small, explicit pieces … then picking one or two pieces and hammering them home over and over at the expense of your actual environmental footprint.

Now, before I give you sustainability-related examples of this PARTICULARIZATION, let’s start with an analogy:

Picture a typical Monday morning at work. Your colleagues ask you – “How was your weekend?”

You say – “It was great, thanks. On Saturday, I went for a swim and on Sunday I had lunch with my sister.”

You pick one or two things from the past 48 hours – things that actually happened – and serve them as a response to your colleagues based on:

a) Who’s asking

b) What you want to say

c) What you actually did

By you saying ‘swim,’ and ‘lunch with sister,’ you are not exaggerating or, God forbid, lying; you’re not saying that you swam 15kms, or that you had lunch with the Prime Minister … those would be, like greenwashing, exaggerated or fabricated claims.

But is your ‘swim,’ and ‘lunch with sister’ a true reflection of the past 48 hours?

Probably not - even though you actually did both of these things.

What else happened during the weekend?

You got plastered and puked (luckily, into a plastic bag) in an Uber on Saturday night. After lunch on Sunday, instead of cleaning the house, you Netflixed for four hours and ate three packets of Cheezels. You worry about what your gf is up to because she has lately been colder than earlier in the relationship. And you almost hung up on your mother (again) because she bragged about your more successful brother on the phone for half an hour (again).

Of course, you aren’t going to say that^^ to your colleagues on Monday, are you!?

No, you pick TRUE ‘swim,’ and ‘lunch with sister’ and serve it to the smiling colleagues, being a good and truth-speaking citizen, thank-you-very-much.

What you’ve just done there is what I mean by particularization – breaking things down into small, detailed pieces, choosing a few true and desirable ones, and then presenting them to the world as the true account of who you are and what you do.


Now, let’s bring this into the corporate sustainability context…

Imagine that you’re the CEO of Nestle

Nestle is introducing a new, recyclable paper packaging for KitKat, replacing traditional, petroleum-based plastic packaging.

You run an international campaign showing the new packaging, which is estimated to replace five thousand tonnes of plastic per year. Your campaign, of course, includes photos of laughing children with perfect teeth as well as sea turtles swimming in a clean turquoise ocean, free of plastic pollution.

Proud of your sustainability achievements, you sleep well at night – this isn’t greenwashing like those other companies – the new packaging IS real.


You announce a new corporate initiative: From January 1, all company’s inter/national flights will be carbon offset under the ‘Nestle Plants Back’ initiative. An accredited certifier you’ve engaged (e.g. Greenfleet), will ensure that hundreds of tonnes of carbon emissions released as a result of flying will be offset by planting 20,000 trees under an accredited carbon offset scheme.

You sleep even better at night - this is legitimate, unlike the ceremonial tree planting bullsh!t done by other corporates.

One more example:

Imagine that you’re a senior executive at Volkswagen. You’re transitioning to electric cars, from small passenger to trucks. By 2035, all Volks will be electric.

Internal modelling shows that this move will avoid 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (which would’ve otherwise been released from the same number of petroleum cars).

With these CLEAN and GREEN Volks, you’ll be keeping the world mobile … moving towards a better future and bright horizons … with the ugly and dirty fossil past disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

You too sleep well at night.


What have you done in both examples (Nestle and Volks)?

You’ve picked true and desirable, legitimate, and factual corporate sustainability initiatives, and shared them with the world.

This isn’t greenwashing; it’s legit

But are the packaging, carbon offsetting, and EVs a true reflection of your company’s environmental footprint?

(Are ‘swim’ and ‘lunch with sister’ a true reflection of your weekend?)

If you’re the Nestle CEO…

Are you going to talk about deforestation in Ivory Coast – the world’s largest supplier of cocoa – where illegal farms replace last remaining forests in Western Africa?

Or that on these farms, trafficked children from neighbouring Burkina Faso work like slaves?

Or that they poison the trees and other vegetation with glyphosate to make space for cocoa plantations, only to have to move elsewhere in the forest a few years later as the soil becomes toxic?

Of course, you won’t say that.

If you are the Volks exec…

Are you going to say that more than 550,000 hectares (an area equivalent to 16,013 NYC’s Central Parks) of primary rainforest in Sulawesi, a biodiversity hotspot, had already been lost to nickel mining, needed for EV batteries for your “clean” cars?

Or that each EV Volks uses 80kg of copper, four times more than a petrol car … and that the copper you buy from Chuquicamata mine in Chile – the world’s largest open-pit copper mine – uses 2,000 litres of water per second, water taken away from people living in one of the driest regions on Earth? Or that this mine – which fuels the “green” energy transition – runs on coal power?

Of course, you won’t say that … who would!?


Both executives believe that breaking their company down into ever smaller detailed parts, making every nut and bolt, every move and every shade of every colour explicit, and then tabulating and reporting on that will move them towards the meaning, towards understanding, as if assembling and disassembling puzzle pieces were analogous to painting a picture.

Unfortunately, as Iain McGilchrist argues in his books, this left-brain activity of tabulation, categorization, distribution, sorting, comparison, manipulation, and taking things out of context is missing the big picture, the Gestalten perspective of the right brain.

It moves us away from meaning and understanding.

Heidegger puts it this way:

“At bottom this plethora of information can seduce us into failing to recognize the real problem. We shall not get a genuine knowledge of essences simply by the syncretistic activity of universal comparison and classification. Subjecting the manifold to tabulation does not ensure any actual understanding of what lies there before us as thus set in order. If an ordering principle is genuine, it has its own content as a thing (Sachgehalt), which is never to be found by means of such ordering, but is already presupposed in it. So if one is to put various pictures of the world in order, one must have an explicit idea of the world as such.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, p.77)

Greenwash in 2023 is, I believe, not a big deal anymore because most companies have a sustainability strategy, a net zero plan, and the larger ones have an ESG framework. That results in granularity and level of detail which makes greenwashing unnecessary because anyone can create a story about, for example, ten tonnes of single-use plastics avoided, or 13,000 trees planted.

(Sure, a coal mining company waving a lump of “clean” coal is clearly greenwashing, but other companies don’t need to as sustainability becomes mainstream.)

What is far worse is the kinds of “green” truths that are picked and served to the audience.

With constantly advancing technological, data, and reporting tools and frameworks, it’s becoming easier (and required) to break things down into ever smaller, incredibly detailed parts.

And with that…

It’s easy to choose the truth that is desirable and serve it to the world on a green platter.

That’s the essence of PARTICULARIZATION.

People have limited bandwidth, and if they keep hearing one or two things from Nestle or Volks that are somewhat related to the environment, they’ll believe that recyclable packaging and EVs are the solutions and that buying more of these is great because they are now “green.”

Neither of the execs was greenwashing. The KitKat packaging, offsets, and EVs were real. But the narrow, laser-focused spotlight of ‘low-carbon,’ or ‘recyclable packaging’ illuminates only a small section of the stage, and the rest remains obscured, even if nobody is exaggerating or lying (just like when you said ‘swim,’ and ‘lunch with sister’ to your colleagues).

But it’s us who point the spotlight in a particular direction, so …

Is it possible to turn on the lights instead?

Because what about long-term?

What will happen to the forests of Sulawesi or the Western Ivory Coast?

They’ll keep disappearing even under the green banner of Nestle, Volkswagen, and other companies.

People will keep buying KitKats and loving them because they are “sustainable.” They’ll keep buying and driving even more cars believing they’re green and clean, just because they don’t release carbon dioxide.

If the orienting principle remains decarbonization, everything that comes under the “NetZero!!!” and “Carbon Neutraaaal!!!” headlines will be prioritized as long as sufficient proof – gathered by PARTICULARIZATION – is provided (e.g. number of tonnes of CO2 avoided).

This will get labelled as “sustainable,” thus greenlighting environmental destruction, e.g. deforestation in Sulawesi and traffic congestions in cities worldwide where guilt-free people will want to drive “green and clean” cars.

How about riding a bicycle and then having an apple instead of a KitKat?

Thanks for reading/watching.


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