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Greedwashing not greenwashing is our greater danger
Greenwashing is a concern, but greedwashing is the bigger threat. The first is the product of decisions by individual actors. The latter is systemic, influencing the attitudes and behaviours of most of us whilst we remain blind to the consequences of our hidden assumptions.
There are oceans of commitments out there, from the Paris Agreement and Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework down, acknowledging the need to make drastic changes to our relationship with the planet we are part of. The challenge we face is that the underpinning philosophy of our economy and society is diametrically opposed to those commitments. Even if we want to (and evidence to date is most of us do not), we cannot simply flip from what we do today to what we need to do for a comparable tomorrow.
There clearly are those who, applying the prevailing mindset to the position we are in, see sustainability and ESG as a marketing opportunity. They create ranges of products and services with the appropriate label and pay lip service to the concepts without the substance to back their claims up. This is the classic greenwashing which various law and policy makers are rightly engaged in clamping down upon.
There are others, including many law firms, who do recognise the need to make the sort of changes which are consistent with the commitments of Paris and Kunming-Montreal. They have set various initiatives in train in response and are dedicating resources to making some changes. If you ask the firms doing this, they will be delighted to speak at length about these efforts. Such firms are vulnerable to accusations of greenwashing too. This is not in respect of what they are doing and the claims in relation to that. It is because many are persisting in supporting activities of their clients which are clearly incompatible with Paris and Kunming-Montreal. This undermines their own sustainability claims and makes them a potential target for the likes of Lawyers Are Responsible and Law Students for Climate Accountability.
It is true that these firms cannot ignore what are increasingly being known as their advised emissions as this becomes one measure of the authenticity of claims of sustainable practice. Tokyo based advertising firm dentsu is one example of a company already factoring this into its 2023 TCFD Report. However, at present, there is no established methodology for calculating these emissions and, as my next post will demonstrate in greater detail, lots of excuses firms may hide behind whilst dragging their heels in embracing truly responsible and sustainable business practice.
Notwithstanding this, it is positive that some firms do appear to be engaging seriously with the issues, the signatories to the Legal Charter 1.5 being the most prominent examples. Engaging meaningfully with reviewing the sources of a professional services firm’s income (as the advised emissions concept demands) is a bold and contentious undertaking. Those who have tried more modest reforms in the sustainability space have tended to meet forceful resistance (as evidenced in recent years by foiled attempts to do this at Grant Thornton and Clifford Chance). If firms who do take steps in that direction are immediately targeted and accused of greenwashing because they are less than perfect, the message to the profession (and others) is better not to bother.
It is the firms that keep their heads down that are the most appropriate targets for the wrath of those that care about life on and of the planet. They cannot be accused of greenwashing, but can of the greater harm of greedwashing. Greedwashing is the insistence that pursuit of profit for its own sake is a pure and noble activity which should be valued (both in terms of being appreciated and being measured) solely on its own terms and without taking into account the consequences that flow from that activity. Such a perspective rests on a premise that is divorced from reality: that actions and their consequences can be separated and the latter disregarded. As reality reasserts itself in the form of natural disasters on every continent on Earth, it is time to recognise this legal fiction as a root cause of the climate and ecological emergencies we face and one of the biggest barriers to addressing them.
This is why it is the law firms and their clients who adhere resolutely to this philosophy – more than those taking tentative steps to do something about it – who need to be challenged for their greedwashing and encouraged to respond constructively to the reality of the world we have created.