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Why do businesses bother "going green"? Is it just greenwashing?

A term like "greenwashing" always confuses folks from other countries, even if their English is really good. "Like white-washing" we say, "only about green stuff." Blank looks prompt us to explain further, "It's just a surface coat of milky runny paint that won't last, just to make things look good for a little while, like the green claims from corporations that don't go very deep or make much real difference." Ah, they recognize this now, it happens in their home countries too.

So is all the green business talk just hooey? Superficial changes meant to convince a gullible public that Exxon doesn't spill oil or Monsanto doesn't deal in toxic chemicals, or that soda pop is good for your health? There is a lot of greenwashing out there. Half-measures, half-truths, flimsy claims and bogus measurements are common in today's eco-advertisements. How is a person to know what's really what?

Nothing is black and white in this green business world. Companies actually have many good reasons to make progress with sustainability. It can save them money when they pursue energy efficiency, water savings, and good waste management. Top quality environmental performance is positively correlated with the best management practices, which often lead to the best financial results for investors. Solid sustainability records can help companies attract and retain the best and the brightest employees. Sustainability opens up strategic new markets, attracts new customers, and drives innovation. And yes, it is good for public relations.

How green does a company have to be in order to be considered a green business? There are no state, national or global standards as yet. But there are many clues and indicators to watch for if you want to support genuine efforts by businesses to practice sustainability. Look for a sustainability report on a company's website, and read it. After you read a few, you begin to be able to tell which ones are serious, and which ones are just beginning the journey. Look for those locally certified green businesses, if there is a program in your area. These standards vary greatly from region to region, but they are a serious start. Is the company a member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in Geneva? That's a good thing. Is the business locally owned? If so, go ask the owner what they have been working on in the sustainability realm.

Green businesses keep track of and try to minimize their energy and resource use and waste generation. They examine their products for toxic ingredients and seek safer substitutes. They evaluate their normal operations for efficiencies, wanting to eliminate waste and difficult working situations. They are aware of any offsite impacts they cause, community concerns, and trends they need to keep up with. They make philanthropic contributions when they can, treat their employees fairly, and participate in industry discussions about sustainability.

Be delighted by any progress in the right direction, or even experimentation that hasn't gone exactly right. There is no perfection, and one never quite fully arrives at a permanent state of sustainability. Just keep asking for more of that triple bottom line: people, planet, and prosperity. - L. A. Strohm