Blacklist those who 'greenwash'

29 November 2011 - 02:05 By Crispian Olver
A Greenpeace volunteer installs wind chimes on Durban's North beach, where the COP17 event is taking place Picture: GREENPEACE
A Greenpeace volunteer installs wind chimes on Durban's North beach, where the COP17 event is taking place Picture: GREENPEACE

Today is the second day of COP17, and with the world's eyes on South Africa, green is the new black.

Suddenly everyone is discussing climate change, and newspapers are full of news stories about the latest twists in the climate negotiations. But the greatest hope for real change is that South Africa's consumers are translating this awareness into what they put into their shopping baskets.

Ogilvy Earth's online survey, carried out this year, reveals that most consumers are prepared to pay a little more for products or services that have ethical environmental and business practices. More than half of the 800 people surveyed said they would buy a product because of the social responsibility initiatives connected to the company, such as creating food gardens or reducing pollution from factories.

A whopping 90% actually want to learn ways to reduce their water and electricity consumption.

South African shoppers are a lot more environmentally savvy than they have been given credit for. This is interesting because it is precisely our culture of hyper-consumerism that is such a threat to the environment.

The private sector has seized the opportunity to get involved at COP17 and are using interesting ways to showcase cutting-edge green technology at the climate change expo.

Not only does it mean visibility for businesses pulling their weight in the struggle for sustainability, but, by the looks of things, consumers are more than willing to meet them halfway.

Of course, there is always the danger of "greenwashing", in which a company's eco-credentials are paying lip service with the aim of attracting customers rather than committing to the environment.

In fact, fewer than one in five of the survey respondents said they trusted companies' green credentials. This is a warning to the chancers - an aware consumer base means that merely going through the motions could mean becoming obsolete in the near future.

Dealing with climate change is certainly proving to be one of the greatest challenges we face as a civilisation. Awareness of the enormity of this challenge has grown massively this year.

And consumers are translating this awareness into choices about what they buy. This, of course, translates into production and economic changes. This is a far more hopeful sign than whatever will come out of the COP17 negotiations.