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The Sustainable Edit

Dispatch #13: The Conscious Citizen

What does it mean to be a conscious citizen? In her monthly column, senior strategic leader in sustainable and international development, Natasha Hafez explores and expounds on precisely that. Join in her journey towards humanity with purpose.

Transforming social and economic systems and practices means improving our relationship with nature, understanding its value, and putting that value at the heart of our decision making. For those of us who love exploring the world, environmental responsibility comes hand in hand with travel. Many businesses and brands observed International Mother Earth Day (22 April) as a market opportunity, using common parlance to promote “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” destinations, products, and services. Public relations, advertising campaigns, and press flooded media outlets, touting clean energy or pollution-reduction efforts, all the while, these buzzwords are influencing our choices without always providing the social impact we need and hope for.

The scientific community has well-documented evidence that consumption and production patterns have severely affected the Earth’s carrying capacity. Loss of biodiversity, desertification, climate change, and the disruption of natural cycles are among the costs of our disregard for nature and the integrity of its ecosystems and life-supporting processes. Restoring our damaged ecosystems will help to end poverty, combat climate change, and prevent mass extinction. But we can only succeed if everyone plays a part.

In a recent and anonymous survey conducted by Harris Poll for Google Cloud, of approximately 1500 senior executives across different industries around the world, 66% of executives globally questioned whether their company’s promoted sustainability efforts were genuine. Furthermore, 68% of surveyed US CEOs and C-suite executives admitted that their companies were guilty of ‘greenwashing’.


‘Greenwashing’ is when an organisation falsely claims to be environmentally conscious for profitability, when in reality, it is not making any notable sustainability efforts. Branding something as eco-conscious when it is not misleads consumers into thinking they are ‘doing good’ by purchasing the product or service.  This can occur even when the organisation has good intentions.

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by Jay Westerveld, in an essay he wrote in the 1980s about the practice of placing notices in hotel rooms, promoting the reuse of towels to “save the environment”. His research found that there was little to no effort made by the hotel industry toward reducing energy waste, however towel reuse saved hotels significant laundry and housekeeping expenses. He concluded that often the real objective can be to increase profit, and labeled this and other profitable-but-ineffective “environmentally-conscientious” acts as ‘greenwashing’.

More recently, some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters have attempted to rebrand themselves as champions of the environment. Products can be greenwashed through a process of renaming, rebranding, or repackaging to convey themselves as more natural and harmless to the environment than its competing brands.

How can we, both as producers and consumers, be certain that our spending goes towards the advancement of sustainability, rather than ‘greenwashing’?

Look for evidence, facts and figures. Don’t be seduced by the colours, packaging, and feel-good messaging that is meant to inspire sales; make sure that the benefit is always backed by science and substantial data. If not, don’t be afraid to ask for more information.

There are many independent third-party industry-specific rating businesses that we can go to verify claims made by companies. Check for rankings, ratings, and certifications to ensure accountability and authenticity of any said-green benefits. Logos and endorsements are often proudly positioned for credibility and effective marketing.

When it comes to environmental standards, ‘trash talk’ is a good thing. For example, eco-friendly hotels may share exactly how they are minimising solid waste to landfills by abandoning traditional in-room plastics such as water bottles and toothbrushes, or how they are supporting community development efforts by partnering with a local NGO to tackle waste and pollution.

In short, companies that make unsubstantiated claims that their products or services are environmentally safe or provide some green benefit are likely involved in ‘greenwashing’.

Consumers and big businesses are responsible for leading change. The world’s depletion of natural resources and rapid environmental degradation are the result of unsustainable consumption and production patterns which have led to adverse consequences for both the earth and the health and well-being of humanity. While contemplating the ways that individuals and institutions can better mitigate their impacts on the environment, let’s root for the earth and clean up our act by building a more sustainable economy that works for both the people and planet.

It’s not too late to act. Making the choice to spend on brands with integrity and transparency leverages social change and shifts profitability where it counts – the advancement of environmental and economic prosperity.

Be a force of nature.

The Conscious Citizen

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