What is sustainability’s most valuable currency? It’s trust.
The trust in governments, institutions and organisations to present the truth about the enormous challenges we are facing. Both regarding the mounting climate crisis and the staggering loss of biodiversity.
The trust in politicians and authorities to not just talk the talk, but also walk the walk. That they will not set ambitious goals to solve these challenges without having the courage and determination to make sure that we reach them.
The trust that when companies claim they work with sustainability, they are not just referring to the management team sporting a circular SDG (UN sustainable development goals)pin on their jacket or participating in campaigns such as #taketheball, but rather integrating ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) into the core of their business strategy.
The trust that all communication and marketing related to sustainability and social responsibility springs from a genuine desire to contribute to a better world, and not just an opportunistic desire to milk a trend to make a short-term profit.
The trust that we can manage to slow down both global warming and the loss of biodiversity, if we all pull in the same direction.
Unfortunately, this trust is under attack. Politicians, business leaders, PR consultants and marketers have all been driving excessive consumer growth. The same people and institutions now have the opportunity to be a force for a greener and more sustainable and equitable society. But without honesty and accountability this is impossible. All sorts of greenwashing and misuse of the 17 UN SDGs must stop.
Responsible companies work hard to create shared values for themselves and society. Greenwashers talk loudly about sustainability without contributing to a better world, diminishing the trust that is so crucial in society when new laws and regulations must be implemented.
Research from all over the world shows the same pattern: consumers increasingly want to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, but they do not know what actually is sustainable. It is not the job of brands, companies or politicians to make it harder for people to choose more sustainable products and services. Our job is to enable and encourage people to make the right choices.
Today we are doing the opposite. When an increasing number of brands, companies and organisations, either by pure cynicism or lack of knowledge, are abusing terms like sustainability and social responsibility, they break down the trust that is so essential for reaching the 17 SDGs.
This is the true cost of greenwashing: a society without trust. A society where people have been deceived and lied to so often that they choose not to believe in anything or anyone - because it is all ‘just a scam’. A society that will continue to consume our natural resources at a pace that makes the planet uninhabitable for coming generations. We cannot afford that cost.
· Pascal Canfin is chair of the environment committee of the European Parliament. This contributed column was collaborated on with Petter Gulli, author of The guide against greenwashing, Bjørn Kjærand Haugland, CEO of Skift and Paul Polman, co-founder of Imagine