Green Words and their Impact: The Role of Language in Greenwashing

By Ilaria Ravazzolo, GLOBUS Correspondent

Anyone who has read up on greenwashing will know that the topic is highly complex. It’s being increasingly considered by companies, investors, governments, and NGOs because of how big of an effect it can have on everyone involved. The Volkswagen scandal in 2015 is only one example of how greenwashing can have a huge negative impact on a company, its brand value, and its stakeholders. It’s one of the biggest and most public cases of greenwashing and its consequences for a firm so far. Many companies nowadays are accused of greenwashing by third parties, and there is an increasing focus by the public on companies’ behaviour and their sustainability strategies. What isn’t considered as much in this labyrinth of complexity is the role of language. But greenwashing is all about communication, so language is inherently a major part of it. In general, but specifically in greenwashing, language can create and enhance both ambiguity and clarity depending on how is is used.

Starting with the definition of the term ‘greenwashing’ we can see how language causes ambiguity, as there is no universally accepted definition of the word. For instance, the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “activities by a company or an organisation that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment”. However, Fernandez-Feijoo et al. have described it as “the distance between what is reported, based on the firms’ discourse, and the company’s commitment to sustainability, determined by an externally established sustainability performance ratio”. There is yet another group of scholars, Lucia Gatti and Peter Seele, who define greenwashing as a “co-creation of an external accusation toward an organisation with regard to presenting a misleading green message” or, in other words, when a firm “engages in consistent CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] communication and no accusation alters the message”. Considering the ever-increasing importance of greenwashing – especially in the corporate world – the fact that there exists no universal definition for the concept highlights the central role of language. The ambiguity that exists around the term greenwashing and what is and isn’t seen as greenwashing is mostly due to language. Therefore, language – in the form of a clear and universally accepted definition of greenwashing – can lead to a better understanding of the concept, which will then help stakeholders to handle it in a more effective way. After all, how can we know how to mitigate the risk of greenwashing, if we can’t even agree on what exactly it is?

In addition to the lack of a clear universal definition, there is also a disagreement of what the term ‘greenwashing’ actually encompasses. One group of scholars use greenwashing to discuss issues relating to environmental sustainability. The word ‘green’ therefore indicates the link to nature. For issues regarding social sustainability, the term ‘bluewashing’ is sometimes used (the word ‘blue’ standing for the colour of the United Nations flag), whereas Fernandez-Feijoo et al. coined the term ‘blackwashing’ for concerns with economic sustainability. Another group of scholars, on the other hand, regards ‘greenwashing’ as an umbrella term for any sort of issue regarding the miscommunication of a company’s sustainability – be it intentional or not – regardless of which pillar of sustainability it affects. Again, we see language creating ambiguity and potential confusion around the topic (which is already complex enough even without the added terminological confusion). How can we communicate about greenwashing coherently and effectively without agreeing on what it includes first? It’s hardly surprising that language is vital for this, as it can clarify or further obscure the meaning of the term.

Language also plays a key role in sustainability reporting, especially when looking at Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports. A study on the readability of CSR reports in the US has found that there is “a significant positive relationship between CSR performance and the readability of CSR reports”. Typically, companies that exhibit a lower CSR performance intentionally use complex language when writing their reports with the aim of mitigating potential negative reactions, as this confuses readers. Language is the key element in the exchange between firms and their stakeholders, which is clearly illustrated by the differences in the readability of CSR reports. Depending on the kind of language that they use in their reports, firms are more or less likely to be accused of greenwashing. Clear communication of a company’s sustainability objectives and the steps they have already taken in that direction can help to avoid misunderstandings that can cause greenwashing accusations. At the same time, readable CSR reports can help third parties to assess the need for intervention or pressure on firms to improve their sustainability. Companies that have nothing to hide in terms of their efforts to become more sustainable are naturally more transparent and clear in their communication, which is reflected in their use of language in CSR reports. Interestingly, the correlation between the readability of sustainability reports and social sustainability performance of firms seems to be stronger than in other areas of sustainability. For example, the researchers do not find an association between a company’s narrative disclosure and its environmental sustainability performance.  

There is another study which analyses the linguistic content of sustainability reports. It focuses on so-called ‘decoupling tendencies’ of firms, which is where firms adopt policies symbolically, without seriously implementing them. Marcus Conrad and Dirk Holtbrügge base their study on eight companies in the manufacturing sector of the automotive and aircraft industries, analysing the language used in their CSR reports. They find that the decouplers tend to write their sustainability reports in a “less cognitively complex way”. This means they use more informal language, with fewer conjunctions, as well as shorter sentences, and fewer past and future references. The two researchers derive from this that decouplers are “characterised by a lower linguistic sophistication” and their reports can be “classified by their linguistic hubris”. They use more self-references, fewer references to risk and anxiety, and fewer emotional references – they also rely heavily on male language. In terms of syntax, for example, the results of the study show that decouplers use 3.73% of inclusive language in their reports and 0.80% of exclusive language. Implementors (those who implement their policies effectively), on the other hand, have much higher scores for both of these indicators with 5.18% inclusive language and 1.14% exclusive language. In fact, Conrad and Holtbrügge find that there is a clear differentiation between decouplers and implementors in every one of the four linguistic dimensions they studied: morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. This highlights the importance of considering the role of language in greenwashing and the need for regulation as well.

For various reasons, language evidently plays an important role in greenwashing. Consequently, the impact of language should be considered and investigated more, as it can significantly improve the way in which regulators handle this issue. We frequently pay too little attention to what is being communicated to us – which words are being used, and what kind of language are messages presented in? These factors can reveal a lot about the world around us: with regards to greenwashing, paying more attention to the language used in CSR reports can help to distinguish between companies who adopt sustainable policy merely for the optics and fail to follow through, versus those who genuinely mean what they say.

Header image by fotdmike via Creative Commons.

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