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Greenwashing

Greenwashing typically describes a focus on marketing activity to position a brand as environmentally friendly, rather than actually minimising environmental impact. While the term was first coined in 1986, in recent years it has been increasingly applied to a number of different sustainability and marketing techniques.

Demonstrating a clear commitment to improved sustainability is a growing priority for a wide range of sectors. Increasingly, reducing your carbon emissions and waste is a vital aspect of how your brand is perceived by customers, investors, partners and other key audiences. However, as consumer concerns regarding the impact of climate change grows, they are also becoming more aware of the difference between real, quantifiable sustainability improvements and what is generally described as ‘greenwashing’.

Claims of a business using 100% renewable energy are increasingly being scrutinised through the lens of greenwashing. As of August 2021, nine million households across the UK have been switched onto what are described as 100% renewable tariffs. Combined with a growing number of businesses that are making similar claims, the total amount of renewable energy being claimed surpasses our total generation from clean sources.

Purchasing guaranteed renewable energy requires careful selection of supplier and tariff. Many of the clean energy tariffs available in practice are using fossil fuel generation, but paying to obtain certificates that allow them to offset fossil fuels. Renewable generation is awarded a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin (REGO) when it generated electricity, proving its green providence. However, the generator can then sell the energy and the certificate separately.

This allows some suppliers to simply but up the certificates to cover the energy supplied to customers, allowing them to make the claim that it is sourced from 100% renewable energy. In reality, nothing has changed: no additional renewable energy is generated as a result of these tariffs, nor are any fossil fuel emissions eliminated.

Other carbon reduction strategies have fallen into similar pitfalls. Some companies may be tempted to turn towards reforestation schemes to allow them to offset some of their carbon emissions, in an effort to reach net zero. Increasingly, some of these schemes are coming under fire from environmental campaigners. Many schemes plant large amounts of fast-growing trees, typically conifers, to allow the largest amount of carbon offset to be claimed. In practice, much of the land designated for reforestation already has plants growing on it, themselves storing carbon, but they are replaced by large coniferous forests that eliminates large swathes of crucial habitat for wildlife, as well as eroding soil quality. When businesses are investing in this kind of carbon offset scheme, they are diverting investment away from meaningful sustainability.

Meaningful, quantifiable sustainability requires careful selection of partners, suppliers and technology, ensuring that the renewable energy you claim can he traced directly to renewable generation. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including investing in your own on-site generation or through the use of a Power Purchase Agreement to source power directly from a renewable generator.

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