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Why a Sustainability Department is a Sign of Greenwashing

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Sustainability departments serve ulterior means

You would think a sustainability department is the clearest sign a company is committed to embracing a sustainable philosophy. But more often than not, it’s a sign of the opposite — companies that aren’t so keen to transform their business model or culture but are keen to avoid the reputational risk of not appearing to care. The outcome is that sustainability initiatives are littered with examples of greenwashing, presenting the illusion of change while companies continue with business as usual.

Sounds cynical? Well, if a company were genuinely committed to embracing sustainability, then doing so would become the company’s raison d’etre. Their core long-term strategy would revolve around moving towards a sustainable path. Decision-making would centre on achieving that strategy. If the company lives, breathes, is sustainable, it wouldn’t need a specific sustainability department because every role within the business would operate in a way that’s leading them to a vision of success centred on sustainable principles. Sure, the business may need a team to manage the transformation of the business model, but every employee would be accountable for achieving that vision. 

If this is a picture of genuine change, what’s a common theme amongst companies? Sustainability departments tend to be nested within other departments, more often than not within public relations. If sustainability is nested within a PR function, what does that tell you about their priorities? The focus isn’t on transformation but on protecting the company’s reputation and ensuring they do and say the right things. In other words, if sustainability isn’t interwoven with the long-term strategy of the business, it’s a sure sign that the business doesn’t care. Sustainability is some thorn in the side, a thing they have to do, but it’s a thing they don’t really want to do because the inconvenient reality is that there are plenty of businesses that are unsustainable by design.

Take an oil company. If an oil company was to embrace sustainability as a foundation of its business practices, the only logical conclusion is that to become sustainable, the oil company would need to stop selling oil. If they did that, they would stop being an oil company. That’s not to say the oil company would cease to exist; they could transform and become a spearhead of an energy transformation towards renewables. They could do that, but they don’t want to because they have so much to lose if they did.

Since 1990 BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon have made nearly $2 trillion dollars in profits. With 1.65 trillion barrels of oil reserves, what incentive do these companies have not to continue making staggering profits? Sure, if they are allowed to do so, it will release carbon bombs that will lock in devastating increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions will accelerate global warming and create extreme weather conditions that could result in social collapse and suffering and death on an unimaginable scale. But these companies exist to maximise profits for their shareholders. Any undesired consequences to the rest of humanity seemingly don’t matter. 

What the market values above all else is a company’s ability to consistently make profits. If a company does so by being ‘green’ — great. But so long as it is profit-making, how a company comes to make those profits is neither here nor there. It’s the ability of oil companies to continue to make astounding profits that maintains their legitimacy, even when their product is destroying the natural world.

The function of sustainability departments, then, is to create an illusion of change that helps justify the continuation of inherently unsustainable industries. All the while, the underlying business models remain unchanged. Sustainability departments are, in short, a symbol of the problem, not the solution, because they enable unsustainable companies to provide a facade of change. It’s no surprise, then, why greenwashing has become so rampant. No matter what it does, an oil company can’t be part of a sustainable society, neither can fast fashion, neither can producers of single-use plastic, nor can destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling.

That’s not to say those working in sustainability roles are part of some dastardly scheme to pull the wool over society’s eyes. There will be plenty of sustainability practitioners who are highly motivated to be spearheads of change. Plenty of those practitioners will be pulling their hair out as they fight against a tide that sees them as an inconvenient necessity. 

As long as business as usual is maintained, environmental impacts will continue to increase, and we’ll continue to hurtle towards social collapse. That future doesn’t sound particularly fun, but social breakdown has now become necessary to create the conditions that will allow us to redesign societies around sustainable principles. Sustainability will have its day. The companies that pretend to embrace such ideas won’t. The sooner that day comes, the more chance we’ll have of adapting to the tidal wave of problems we face.