Image by Thibault Penin
greenwashing, sustainable, plastic

What is Greenwashing? A Nestlé Case Study

By Sydney Bernardo

“Plastic waste is one of the biggest sustainability issues the world is facing today. Tackling it requires a collective approach. We are committed to finding improved solutions to reduce, reuse and recycle. Our ambition is to achieve 100% recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025”

Nestlé CEO Mark Schneider

The PR release came out April 2018. Néstle appeared to see the plastic pollution problem and was poised to act.

When businesses announce new environmental ambitions, they’re often met with applause. Many people are excited to see big companies acknowledging their impact on the environment. Unfortunately, ordinarily good words from certain companies are bound to ring hollow.

Néstle’s “commitments” were met with criticism. Greenpeace publicly declared their plan to be “greenwashing baby steps,” and Nestlé’s message was largely ignored. The plan committed all the cardinal sins of greenwashing: being too vague, avoiding numerical goals, and enforcing the power of “a collective approach”. The idea that saving the environment requires a “collective approach” is especially infuriating coming from one of the world’s greatest – and wealthiest – waste producers.

It was too little action, too late.

After a quick review of Nestlé’s history of environmentalism (or lack thereof), it’s easy to see why. Just a year earlier, a beach clean-up in the Philippines revealed almost 17% of the litter was from Nestlé products. Not to mention the company’s questionable water use history. In Michigan, only two hours from Flint, Nestlé pays just $200 to pump 210 million gallons of water per year while Flint continues to go without clean drinking water. This complete disregard of local communities and the environment is a common theme for Nestlé.

If Nestlé truly wanted to protect the environment, they would have to turn their world upside-down and completely change their business practices. But their story tells us something else too – that the signs of greenwashing can be spotted. We, as business leaders and supporters, can identify, publicly reject greenwashing, and commit to greater transparency and accountability.

Companies that “greenwash” create their company with profit in mind and tack on environmentalism only when it’s convenient or demanded. Companies that are truly good for our world are created with, and every decision is made with, the environment in mind.

If Nestlé represents greenwashing and what not to do, Klean Kanteen shows us what businesses should do. Klean Kanteen is a B corp that’s been evaluating their ecological impact since their founding in 2004. They sell reusable stainless-steel products, like water bottles, intended to replace their plastic counterparts. They would be a pretty sustainable brand if they stopped here, but they don’t. Klean Kanteen also tracks and quantifies their GHG emissions, consciously reduces their energy consumption, and offsets any emissions they are unable to eliminate to achieve carbon neutrality. They also have donated over $3 million to nonprofits working to combat climate change. Klean Kanteen takes a holistic approach to environmentalism – one that Nestlé could learn from.

Most importantly, they are transparent. Klean Kanteen posts an annual brand impact report on their website for easy viewing access. Anyone that’s interested can read about their worker’s benefits and CO2 reductions from transportation practices. Even when their practices aren’t flawless, they are honest with their numbers and how/when they will be improved. Klean Kanteen doesn’t pretend to have perfect practices. But they do make their practices better each and every day.

The next time you’re wondering if something is “greenwashing”, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they transparent?
  • Are their goals direct and quantified?
  • Do they understand their role in battling climate change and are they willing to choose the planet over profits?

We all have a role in protecting the environment. One of the best ways to reject greenwashing and send a message to companies engaged in greenwashing is to vote with your dollar – only buy from companies that are truly committed to social and environmental sustainability.

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