Spotting the Greenwash…the SMART test for sustainability


My first encounter with the term “greenwash” was in the US, but at the time it was being used to ridicule companies trying to align themselves with Ireland to sell more products on St Patrick’s Day.  Today the term has much wider and more serious implications, identifying those who make a public virtue of sustainability while actually doing very little about it.

So is there a quick test to determine whether an organisation is really serious about its sustainability?

Most of us are familiar with the SMART acronym when it comes to objective setting and even if the exact interpretation of what each letter means varies, the broad concept is the same; set an objective which is meaningful, easy to understand, measurable and delivered to some sort of timetable.  So let’s use something similar to provide a critical lens for claims of sustainability.

In our case I suggest SMART is best interpreted as Strategic, Measurable, Aligned, Radical and Targeted (although I’m sure other suggestions will follow and be most welcome!).

Let’s start with Strategic.  What I mean by this is that be credible sustainability must be in the core mission statement and board-level objectives, that these are communicated to all stakeholders (employees, customers and business partners / suppliers), that there is a budget for it and that someone at a very senior executive level has personal responsibility for it.  Not difficult, but if it’s done clearly and openly then everything else becomes much easier.  I know that major investment houses and financial analysts are now rating and judging companies on the basis of their sustainability strategies and credentials and where the money goes, the rest of us inevitably follow.

Measurable is a little more tricky but is no less important.  True sustainability requires that we consider the environmental impact of every aspect of all significant operations.  This will range from raw materials and energy consumption to supply chain and staff travel. Clearly these vary hugely between say a steel producer and a local authority, or between a bank and a school, but the principal is the same; identify the scope of your operation and profile its impact, both direct and indirect (e.g. from suppliers).  Benchmark it and ideally identify some historical trend.  Then identify ways to reduce it and how that will be measured.  Finally set targets and timescales linked to the strategic objectives and report progress (to all stakeholders) regularly.

Next we have Aligned.  Mike Berners-Lee in his book “There is no Planet B” rightly warns us about unintended consequences or re-bounds.  A sustainability strategy must therefore cross organisational and geographical borders.  It must not celebrate success in one area while ignoring negative impacts in another.  Sustainability is to do with the entire planet and alignment in this case means that the organisation has considered, co-ordinated and communicated (internally and externally) to the extent that common purpose has been generated throughout.  So aligned also refers to the inclusion of the sustainability goals in everyone’s objectives, cascaded from the strategy but made appropriate to the departmental, team and individual responsibilities and areas of influence.

Radical is simultaneously the simplest and most challenging.  If we are serious about sustainability then proposed changes cannot be small steps or minor changes.  Having worked in strategy and consulting for over 20 years I am not naïve about the difficulties of radical change, however, whether declared as such or not, we face a climate emergency which requires us to do more than place a green gloss over existing operations.  My suggestion therefore is that we need to use a benchmark of 40% as our definition of “radical”.  By which I mean every organisation (and we as individuals) should be committing to reduce negative impacts by 40% with immediate effect.  I’m certain that this is simultaneously not radical enough for many and too radical for most, which hopefully means it’s in the “plausible” zone.  Just consider that working from home two days a week, using a low-energy tablet device and at a personal level removing meat from your diet three days a week will all fall within this proposed “radical” success measure.

And finally we have Targeted.  Which in my case simply means the organisation must visibly be doing the most important and impactful things first.  In sales speak it’s known as going after the “low hanging fruit”, but there’s three very good reasons for doing so.  Firstly the sooner we make a difference the more impact we have.  The trajectory of our carbon emissions, energy consumption and pollution are all currently in the wrong direction.  We need to take urgent action right now to avoid irreparable damage to the planet and the sooner we do this the more impact the change will have.  Secondly it builds momentum and overcomes inertia – quick wins drive effective change faster.  Finally a targeted approach demonstrates to others what’s possible.  To be clear, while genuine sustainability may soon become a competitive advantage for organisations there is no benefit in pointing at “others” and berating them for their lack of progress, if we are serious about sustainability we need to have, and celebrate, exemplars and champions.

So that’s my SMART measurement of credible sustainability.  I’m always happy to hear comments and suggestions, but equally please do try applying this to your organisation to see how it stacks up.

(NB If you are interested in how to put all of this to action in your organisation please do not hesitate to get in touch using the details below).

#sustainability #climate change #climateemergency #strategy #greenIT #greewash

About the Author:

Speaker (2)

Ewen Anderson is co-founder and CIO of Px3, a company which provides analytics and consultancy to help organisations improve their workplace sustainability.  Ewen has a background in management services, enterprise IT and executive leadership.  Over the last 20 years he has worked as a strategy consultant for many FTSE 100, SMBS, public sector and Not for Profit organisations.  He can be contacted at

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