The Green Sheen

Faraz Aghaei discusses greenwashing with Mark Shayler.

Faraz Aghaei (Co-Founder of The Clerkenwell Brothers) interviews Mark Shayler, (Director at Ape – an innovation and sustainability consultancy), founding partner of The Do Lectures, to discuss greenwashing.

The practice of making a company appear more environmentally friendly than it really is, greenwashing, is a problem that hasn’t gone away. So why is it that so many brands are getting it wrong? I sat down with Mark Shayler, Director at Ape (an innovation and sustainability consultancy), founding partner of The Do Lectures, and all round top guy to discuss greenwashing.

Mark thank you for taking the time out to sit down with us today. Can you talk us through your career and tell us a little bit more about what you do?

Well, I started life as an environmental auditor with Bradford Council. My job was to work with small and medium sized companies in the area and reduce their environmental impact. So I did a lot of work on waste, sustainable packaging, energy and the like. But every time I saw a company it became clear that I was treating a symptom rather than the cause. I was looking at waste because the product design process was not great; I was looking at energy because the process design was pants; and I was trying to reduce their costs as their strategy was all wrong. So in the six years that I did this I learnt so much about how to (and how not to) run a business… After a brief flirtation with consultancy I got asked to join Asda as Environmental Manager. This was in 1999 and the early days of sustainability in corporates.

I was placed in the PR team which I suspect tells you everything you need to know.

It was the end of an era in a number of ways. It was the end of “environmental manager as apologist”, it was the end of pretending that retail didn’t have an impact, and it was the end of management by fear. I managed all environmental impacts and initiatives for over 200,000 colleagues, all the stores and the supply-chain. I joined because there was a real opportunity to turn around a big old ship. The scale of the opportunity and impact was huge.

I then set-up a small environmental consultancy and ran that successfully for nearly ten years. Now I run a small innovation and sustainability agency – Ape. I work with some great companies to develop new products, new ideas, new businesses that make the world a better place. I also build start-ups inside big companies with my side project – Rebel Cell. In my “spare” time I am a founding partner of the Do Lectures and I help the team there to grow what they are doing as well as compere the events, write the odd book and record the odd podcast.

What are the worst examples of greenwashing you’ve come across?

There are loads. In the old days everyone was in denial about what they did. Their impacts were pretty bad but they lied about it. Then we began to off-set this stuff. Companies did bad stuff in other part of the world but sponsored a few schools elsewhere. This is crazy. Imagine it in other areas of life; kick your dog and give a tenner to the RSPCA. Bonkers.

My (least) favourite examples? SeaWorld and their ‘cup that cares’. Each time the cup is refilled the user is told how much CO2 has been saved. This from a company with such a dubious environmental record as they have. Furthermore, you can buy plastic attachments for the cup that grows it into a plastic animal. Hello? Then there are degradable plastics. These things seem to make sense on paper but the reality is that they won’t ordinarily get composted as they require treatment at high humidity and temperature. In reality they get landfilled. But the biggest, baddest case of greenwashing is VW. They manipulated and lied about diesel emissions for years; to the regulators and to the public. Disgraceful.

It’s a scary world out there right now. Is there an argument to be made for brands picking up the pieces where government has failed?

This is a fascinating question. It has been clear for sometime that people trust governments less than they trust brands; that government leaders are less articulate, less visionary, and less ambitious than some business leaders. But at the same time I’m sensing a fatigue, an indifference to brand messages.

We don’t know who to trust anymore and consequently trust is moving towards networks, towards peer-to-peer groups. This is the future. This is where we feel safest. The recent mass-actions (the women’s march, the anti-trump protests) give some kind of hope. It could be perceived that it’s a bit sad that we need something to fight against in order to come together. But I’ll take that. I’m happy that people pull together, no matter why. So yes, brands have a role in picking up the pieces. But this isn’t enough. We need to come together.

As consumers, do we really want to genuinely be green, or just seen as being green?

I hate that word. Consumer. When did we define ourselves by the things we buy and use? But I take your point. As people/customers do we really care or do we want to look like we care? I think we are genuinely caring at our core. I don’t think anyone gets up and decides to be a bastard. But, yet we are surrounded by bastards. How? People are distracted by the trappings of wealth, by “progress”, by technology, by being more “successful” than their neighbours. This is ego. Ego is really complex. We show-off, we explain who we are by what we buy. This is lazy. This is normal. This is sad. But it is changing. I see a movement towards better. A movement towards openness. Not everyone is on this journey but it is growing. It is based on honesty, authenticity, openness and an realisation that things don’t make you happy: people and experiences do. So, sure, there are as many green-boasters as there are people who genuinely care. Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter, was long as behaviour changes.

Are there any brands that are genuinely striving to make a difference?

There’s been a massive shift in the thinking around CSR. It used to be geared around off-set. A company with an impact would spend money on sponsoring schools, or something similar. This is changing. We have seen an increase in companies investing in CSV (creating shared value). This means spending every dollar, pound or euro well. The leaders in this are Unilever, Nestle, and General Electric. Not your usual candidates. But they are making real headway. I’m not saying these companies are perfect, far from it; but they are first to adopt to a new way of doing, other than thinking. There are the obvious leaders in terms of brands and sustainability: Patagonia and Interface float to the surface every time. But I’d add to that Finisterre, Hiut Denim, Dawson Denim, Trakke and the many other smaller companies that have product made here and build products for a lifetime rather than a season.

What are the sustainability trends we should be looking out for in the next few years?

The exploding middle class population will strain our resource base and so we need to do more with less.

The key challenge that we have is how we make more money by selling less stuff.

The challenges to growing a circular economy is three-fold: 1. Longevity, build products that we want to own and use for a long-time. The greenest coat is the one you already own; 2. Business models, if stuff lasts for a long time, and if we can re-shore manufacture the increased price will need better business models; 3. Clever chemistry, we have the periodic table in our hand and we let it fall through our fingers when we recycle products as we just go for the heavy and easy to get materials. We need great new processes to recover the value rather than the volume.