Corporations have several responsibilities when drafting sustainability reports, including being honest about their progress and presenting accurate information to consumers.

However, some companies disregard honesty and mislead the public by “greenwashing,” which means they exaggerate their environmental efforts or provide false information, said Will Flower, senior vice president of corporate communications for Republic Services Inc.

Flower said greenwashing is unfair to consumers.

Flower will talk about how companies can communicate with their customers in an authentic way during his presentation, “Avoid greenwashing in reporting on sustainability,” during his April 30 presentation at the Waste Expo in Las Vegas.

Q: What are some of the highlights of the presentation?
A: One of the challenges that companies have today – when I say companies I mean organizations and anyone who is reporting on environmental communication – is that it’s a large conversation that’s going on. Everybody’s talking about being green.

During this presentation, we’ll talk about how you communicate your sustainability efforts in an authentic way that is valuable to your customers and the audience you’re trying to connect with. What I want to stress in the presentation is that a sustainability report is a critical business tool, and it should be viewed as such.

A sustainability report is as important as an annual report is on the financial side. One of the challenges is that they have to be very careful not to greenwash. What I mean by that term, ·greenwashing,ö is overstating their promises or their activities in the area of environmental protection or sustainability efforts. We have an obligation to our audience to always be transparent, accurate, timely and honest. There are many examples out there of blatant greenwashing, which make claims or state results that just aren’t true. They engage in stretching the truth or complete fabrication of the truth, which is really unfair to the audience.

I want to give some of the history about how we arrived at today’s reporting. It’s a very interesting history how, over time, sustainability reporting has developed. There weren’t many companies that were focused on sustainability reporting 20 or 30 years ago. Today, providing information on your sustainability efforts is more common than not for public companies. By issuing a sustainability report, you have a wonderful opportunity to explain to your audience exactly what you’re doing or what you’re planning to do to protect and enhance the quality of the environment.

Q: Can you spot greenwashing when looking at a report?
A: It’s difficult to do when they make projections. They could make claims in the future that could be very difficult to determine or prove the validity of the claim. … Can you identify greenwashing? The answer is you can. Some greenwashing is extremely obvious. Some greenwashing is not so obvious. What you have an obligation to is to your audience. What you really have to do is make sure what you’re telling people is in fact true, honest, and transparent. Sometimes, greenwashing includes making a claim that you can’t prove or being so vague about something that it’s just impossible to prove. In some cases, they are just outright misleading information. What you want to do is identify information in your sustainability report that is meaningful to the customer. Talk about what you’re doing to enhance sustainability. What you’re doing to protect the environment. Some people go on to talk about future programs and what these programs are intended to do. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, it shows an interest in being on the cutting edge and taking actions to enhance sustainability and doing things that are positive for the environment.

Q: Why are these reports an important business tool?
A: The sustainability report gives people the opportunity to look inside the company to determine what it is that we’re doing to protect the environment. What it is that we’re doing socially to ensure that we’re aligned with our customers’ interests. I think it’s fair to say that not everybody cares about what we’re doing to protect the environment. The fact of the matter is number one: It’s important to us. Number two: There are many customers that do care about the environment and that care about sustainability. We want to make sure that if it’s important to our customers, then the customers have a way to find out information about what we’re doing. The reality is this entire (solid waste) industry is truly on the front line of environmental protection.

Q: What’s the point of having a report if it isn’t accurate?
A: One of the dangers is when (companies) take liberties and they don’t follow the rules of truth-in-advertising. If they view this report as a way to sell their services, that’s a real danger. I think the Federal Trade Commission certainly is looking at the issue of greenwashing today more than ever before. They want to look at companies when they’re making sustainability claims because when making a decision that’s based on sustainability information which isn’t true, it’s unfair to the customer, and it’s dishonest. It’s just not right. There is the potential for companies to stretch the truth, and that’s one of the things you need to make sure your report is honest, it’s transparent and it’s accurate because, otherwise, you’re really misleading the consumer and that’s wrong.

Q: Any last comments?
A: What’s really important when we talk about sustainability is that we have a good definition of what that means. For me, my favorite definition is similar to the golden rule which is, ´Do unto future generations as you would have them do unto you.´ What sustainability means is meeting the present needs of society without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond at vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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