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Continuing our commentary on diverse audiences for ESG information and in furtherance of our quest for plain language in ESG/sustainability … I read and followed a recent LinkedIn post about a Financial Times article on greenwashing, and the subsequent stream of comments. The article proposed a simple (I’ll come back to that) “taxonomy of greenwashing” with five categories of greenwashing mechanisms and quick explanations of how they work:

Credit: Andreas Hoepner

Granted, there is a pointed or perhaps accusatory tone to the article. But the mechanisms seem helpful as a basis for non-ESG professionals to understand different forms of greenwashing (which can inform how to avoid it). There is minimal jargon and ESG professionals did not appear to be the intended audience. However, that is where the LinkedIn post and comments went off the rails with resounding visceral and unfiltered negativity from ESG/sustainability practitioners – which is disconcerting and telling. Typical comments included:

” … dangerously oversimplifies the actual challenge…

… just adds more confusing categories…

… the tone and generalization that all companies [are] evil and manipulative …

This was one of the most tedious articles on greenwashing I’ve read … (And don’t even get me started on the unnecessary ‘novel’ slicing and dicing types of greenwashing.)”

I am not saying the article is perfect or without fault, but its potential usefulness (tone notwithstanding) to a non-ESG audience was ignored. In spite of rhetoric for years about integrating with the business, ESG/sustainability practitioners may still have blinders on when it comes to acknowledging the importance of and communicating with “the world beyond.” We have a stubborn need to speak/write in industry jargon and acronyms, stay in our echo chamber, and ignore the value of simplicity and clarity – and the perspectives of others. ESG professionals want greenwashing to end, while pushing back against improving broader understanding of the issue to help its demise – almost taking a position that the solution to greenwashing is not talking about it.

Spoiler alert: there are more (and more important) non-ESG audiences for ESG messaging/communications than there are ESG audiences – internally within companies as well as outside those walls. Ignore that at great peril. It is imperative to move past the tunnel vision – acknowledge and give due respect to the broader business world and public at large. There is a sad irony that ESG professionals working to change the world in their actions concurrently ignore how they communicate to the world they want to change.

This brings us back to simplicity and clarity.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile