Greenwashing: Corporate Social Responsibility Gone Wrong.

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Greenwashing: Corporate Social Responsibility Gone Wrong.

“Organic”, “Environmentally friendly”, and “Sustainable” are just a few of the buzz words that have dominated the business and CSR space in the last few years. Consumers are increasingly attentive to the environmental and social issues that plague society today, and companies are required to engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives to give response to the call for action from their stakeholders and society at large. Consumers have since put their money where their mouths are, and companies have realised that the communication of their commitments in favour of the environment or socio-economic issues can help them acquire market segments dominated by the more socially aware customers. As a result, corporate social responsibility is now viewed as a lucrative business function and has thus become a breeding ground for dishonesty and deception.

We have seen a growing number of companies engage in CSR initiatives in an attempt to reap the benefits of being an environmentally and socially responsible organisation by merely giving the appearance of a socially conscious company on the outside. This has given rise to the concept of greenwashing. Greenwashing is used to describe situations where companies mislead consumers by claiming to be eco-friendly or sustainable as a marketing scheme rather than a core principle of their business model. Global corporations, especially those that operate in unsustainable industries such as petro-chemicals and fossil fuels, are frequently guilty of greenwashing. Well-intentioned consumers who want to make more responsible purchases in an effort to contribute to the fight against pollution or climate change are often the ones who fall victim to greenwashing tactics. This brings into question the legitimacy of many companies’ corporate social responsibility strategies.

While greenwashing may raise awareness of the need for sustainability, the practice does more harm than good. Companies may claim to be sustainable or to be transitioning their supply chains to being environmentally circular, their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives are fundamentally flawed and have no real impact on the communities they serve. Consequently, these companies present corporate social responsibility reports that are essentially meaningless as they don’t align with CSR frameworks and don’t honestly reflect the companies true behaviour.

It is important that stakeholders and customers are able to spot greenwashing campaigns so that these organizations can be held accountable. Greenwashing threatens the legitimacy of corporate social investment (CSI) by stealing investment from authentic initiatives and clouding the meaning of real CSI. As stakeholders and customers become more informed about the challenges that face humanity, they have a responsibility to challenge the CSR and CSI, sustainability, just transition, and other claims made by companies to ensure that CSR and CSI are strategic directions and not merely marketing fads.

About the Author:
Yolanda Gossel is the Founder and Programme Director at Five Tulips, a South African based sustainability and corporate social investment (CSI) consultancy. Five Tulips forges partnerships between communities, public and private sectors and individuals for social upliftment and preservation of our planets resources and ecosystems.
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