10 November 2021
‘Greenwash’ is the word of the week. It feels as if a significant chunk of those commentating on COP26 is either guilty of it or is calling it out. Companies in particular are in the spotlight – since they are falling over themselves to use the COP to trumpet their green credentials, it is hardly surprising that a proportion of those will be doing it cynically. Glossy films are appearing on our televisions, with all the iconography of the moment – a diversity of actors, lingering shots of beautiful landscapes, and a great many trees. The pages of the Economist are stuffed with adverts for companies on the offensive or the defensive, and highlighting the economic opportunities thought be rolling their way. How can anyone navigate this?
One answer is data. If plans to make companies comprehensively report their true greenhouse gas impacts come to fruition, and agreed methodologies can be developed, we might have a stronger basis for pinpointing inaction as well as pressing for speedier action by the worst offenders. Closer in time but not a regulation, the new Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) guidance expects businesses to consider and evaluate whole chain impacts to justify an environmental claim. This was produced following international analysis that ‘40% of green claims made online could be misleading’.
Data has been how WRAP has been able, over its 20-plus year history, to show which sectors and products have the highest impacts, and then engage with those sectors on the most effective ways to reduce them. For instance, WRAP was responsible for illuminating the greenhouse gas impacts of food, and thus of food waste. These insights helped us to target our efforts to the right audiences - more than half of food waste comes from us as consumers, alongside that coming from retailers, manufacturers, and growers – but also crucially to understand which are the worst foods to waste (meat and dairy) and message accordingly. Similarly for textiles and for plastics – we know where in the supply chain the biggest problems lie.
WRAP has two strands of current work that provide important data methodologies. One is to convene the food sector to develop a common approach to measurement of Scope 3 emissions (underpinning our Courtauld 2030 Voluntary Agreement greenhouse gas target). The other is the Textiles 2030 updating of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) footprint calculator tool, making quantification of Scope 3 emissions (and water footprint) practical for textiles businesses big and small. As well as providing data to pinpoint where to act in the product chain, we enable businesses to measure corporate progress and assess their best actions – the Target, Measure, Act approach. Doing this robustly, and reporting the results (whether food waste, clothing footprint or climate-related financial disclosures) is a sound way for businesses to avoid greenwash or the perception of greenwash.
Knowing where the problems lie is of course only the first step, but it is an essential pre-cursor to change. The first step in changing a system (and these are complex systems) is to understand the drivers and levers, and they are illuminated not just by data, but by the relationships that are built while framing, collecting and sharing that data. Engaging leading companies in a sector, and across supply chains, in this kind of conversation is one of WRAP’s enduring strengths. Support from governments, and the ability to bring in academic research and insight, has also been crucial. Over the years, the conversations have become a body of genuinely stretching commitments by companies to change what they do and meet impact reduction targets.
It is entirely understandable, and indeed helpful, that critical friends question the efficacy of voluntary agreements such as WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment, Plastics Pact and Textiles 2030. They rightly point out that joining these initiatives risks the tag of ‘greenwash’ if more wordage than solid progress is being emitted. It is WRAP’s constant mission and preoccupation that progress, and progress of a systemic kind, is indeed the outcome. Sometimes we know that what is needed to achieve transformation is policy or regulation that bears on everyone, and in those circumstances, the experience of forging voluntary agreements gives us a head start on how that might best be achieved. It also primes everyone involved for that future. None of the insights that WRAP gains by working closely with companies is ever wasted while envisioning and delivering systemic change. At the same time, we must ourselves be prepared to call out ‘greenwash’ and part company with those unable or unwilling to live up to their own rhetoric.