Sustainability: Science for Change vs Greenwash

How greenwash, politics, fake news and all manner of distractions have a corrosive effect on genuine attempts to drive change.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase used by James Carville, a strategist in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, intended to keep the campaign’s workers’ focus on a simple, controlled message.  It worked and the phrase entered political and marketing textbooks.

Today we could try to focus minds on the issue of climate change with a phrase like “it’s sustainability, stupid” but it is less likely to be so readily adopted, as the world has fortunately become a rather kinder place, at least linguistically.  If we take a look at the origins of the word, however, we might get a different perspective.

Enter the Stupidus….

A “stupidus” was a mimic playing a role in the classical Roman theatre, along with the scurra (giving us scurrilous) and moriones (moron).  The stupidus (also known as a “parasitus” – one who eats from another’s table) was a masked comic who would copy the lead actor but spice up the performance with obscene gestures and language to distract and amuse the audience.  

And here we have the issue.

The science around sustainability should be the main event, whether that’s the facts around global heating as a critical issue, the contribution of various factors like fossil fuels or the need for transparent progress tracking and carbon accounting.  The underlying science should be clear, tested, peer-reviewed, professional and rigorous.  Because if it is then anyone presented with the resulting facts should react accordingly, right? 

However, like the Romans, we have the stupidus distracting us from the genuine content.

Peering Behind the Greenwash

At a recent supplier event I toured the sponsor exhibition hall and spotted multiple stands displaying “green” claims.  Some featured bland “protect the planet” statements, others proudly displayed a sub-set of the UN SDG logos.  None of the otherwise perfectly capable personnel on the stands could explain what actual, practical and measurable environmental benefit their products and services delivered, although reduced paper use and printing was the most credible (if still rather tenuous) response. 

To any claims of benefits, I asked my simple science question – “Have you actually measured the carbon footprint of the whole process, including all its component elements, before and after?  Because if not, you might have actually made things worse…..”.  This was met with a mixture of confusion and polite dismissal.  “Of course not – does anyone actually do that?” 

This is the very essence of poisonous, content-free greenwash.

And Then There’s Politics

Another prime case where we see stupidus plying their distractive trade is politics.  Naively we would expect our policy makers and leaders to be considering what is best at least for our countries, if not for the wider world.

The rise of populist politicians has encouraged the dissemination of fake news and environmental scepticism in favour of short-term economic benefits.

To add to a veritable plague of short-term thinking we’ve also seen economic pressures and energy concerns cause more and more countries to question their commitments to reductions in the use of fossil fuels and consequently  the SDG goals and climate pledges.

The current competition to become UK Prime Minister is a case in point, with all the candidates at one point seeming to appeal to a right-wing sub-section of the electorate with promises to abandon Net Zero targets and roll-back on “green” levies and taxes. Fortunately those positions were reversed, but the threat remains.

We saw a brief glimmer of positivity regarding science during the pandemic when actual scientists took centre stage both in terms of public briefings and the race to develop and deliver vaccines at unprecedented speed.

All too quickly though, the principled environmental message (that we can and should lead the way on promoting sustainable practices and technology) is being sacrificed in favour of short-term political ambition through a very obvious pitch to the baser instincts of the audience, while our nightly news reports are filled with record temperatures, drought and floods.

Countering the Negative Impacts

Now it’s debatable which is worse;  the corrosive long-term impact of greenwash, the delays created by short-term political thinking, the shadowy influence of political lobbying on behalf of the fossil fuel industry or poison introduced by fake science and news discrediting the genuine content. 

Ultimately the main issue is that the genuine science and informed opinion become obscured, diluted or just lost in a fog of false claims and vested self-interest.

What’s needed is genuine, independent science-based metrics which can be held up to any external scrutiny.  From an organisational perspective we’ve seen the emergence of a number of projects and certifications (Ecovadis, CDP and Science Based Targets are examples).  

The more these genuine, transparent and objective metrics can be used, the stronger the urge for action through investment groups and ESG will be.  Where objective metrics take centre stage it’s hard for the stupidus to distract us.

Building a Science and Research-Based Business

At Px3 we’re lucky enough to have a research scientist as our CEO.  Not only that, we have one who has dedicated his time, research and indeed his career to understanding and promoting the sustainability of information technology.  That makes our product development and marketing very clear in terms of its focus and honesty.

Not all company lines are as easily drawn and I fully appreciate the temptation to start grabbing for green tag lines to boost marketing campaigns, but be assured – there’s no USP or customer loyalty in greenwash.

What our customers want from us is typically something significantly more substantial – independent, science-based metrics for decision making around ICT.  This is particularly true as organisations start to look beyond the initial Scope 2 (energy  consumed) and into Scope 3 (embodied carbon, travel, commuting and supply chain).  So that combined view is what we spend our time investigating and creating.

The process of calculating the consolidated ICT baseline, then mapping the “hotspots” (places, devices, roles or functions) and mapping out what an alternative near-future could look like, illustrated above, is both eye-opening and deeply satisfying.

Conclusion

Ultimately we judge our success as a business by the difference we make to (and through) our customers in terms of emissions reduction.

We’re not in any way suggesting that sustainability is the only metric for decision-making, or even the most important one, yet, for most organisations.  Only that it should be up there along with cost and risk (which includes security and reliability) and linked to user experience.

So our use and promotion of science and research is specifically to cut through the performance of the stupidus and instead present a very clear and easily understood set of metrics that change behaviours.  Because that’s what science should achieve. For more information on how Px3 use science to drive genuine improvements in sustainability  please visit or main site or contact us to find out more.

About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3

Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies.  Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.

Ewen (LinkedIn Profile) can be contacted at ewen@px3.org.uk

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