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How to counter greenwash: measure what matters – and make it visible

The term greenwashing applies when companies (or governments) spend more money or time advertising being green, than on investing in environmentally sound practices.
In business, greenwashing often means changing the name and/or label. Early warning signs that a product is probably toxic include images of trees, birds, or dew drops. If all three are on the box, the product will probably make your skin peel off in seconds.
London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, complained recently that government rather than commerce is holding up progress on climate change. He described the UK energy review as “dishonest spin” and the latest G8 meeting as a “carnival of debate”.
But the UK government is also taking important steps that, in the medium term, will be a powerful deterrent against greenwash.
The Carbon Trust and UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have announced that they will work with BSI British Standards to co-sponsor the development of a Publicly Available Specification (PAS). This will be a standard method for measuring the embodied green house gas (GHG) emissions in products and services across a wide range of product and service categories and their supply chains. The aim is to enable companies to measure the GHG related impacts of their products, understand the life-cycle climate change impacts of their products, and highlight significant emissions reduction opportunities. The intention is that this is the first step in moving towards an internationally agreed standard for measuring embodied GHG emissions.
Also this week in the UK, it was announced that a new offsetting code will be launched by the Government later this year. Offsetting is a complex subject (well explained here) and George Monbiot, in a celebrated text, described offsetting as an excuse for business as usual. There are indeed cowboy firms out there, but the whole industry has suffered because there is no way reliably to measure the claims of those offering to offset carbon emissions.
Some will complain that both the PAS and the offsetting code will be voluntary. Companies will be able to choose whether or not to seek accreditation for some or all of their products and services. The PAS scheme, in particular, is aimed explicitly at companies, and is not designed to empower citizens to make critical purchasing decisions.
But these are early days. As governments and international institutions, responding to political pressure, impose order on environmental reporting systems, we designers can reveal and repurpose the data in creative ways.

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