When green is a dirty word

“Green is my least favourite word.”

Sounds odd coming from EY New Zealand’s director of climate change and sustainability, Gerri Ward.

But, like others experts on sustainable business, she’s sick of companies using “greenwashing” terms to portray their operations as more eco-friendly than they actually are.

There’s even a new term – “carbonwashing” – where a company creates a misleading impression of its greenhouse gas emissions credentials.

Talking to Newsroom business editor Nikki Mandow for the latest episode of Newsroom’s podcast Net Zero: The Road to 2050, ITALS Ward and others worry that underneath a sustainable facade, far too many companies are still doing far too little about reducing their carbon footprint.

Instead, climate change targets have become a proxy for action, Ward says.

“People think that setting publicly available targets and saying that they're signing up to some pledge, or joining some club, or putting a particular carbon neutral label on the product, is the same thing as being green and doing good stuff.”

Also on the podcast Rachel Brown, head of the Sustainable Business Network, says for a long time companies were bamboozled by the science around greenhouse gas emissions.
These days, the weather outside their windows and on their TV screen makes climate change hard to ignore. Still, for a lot of business leaders, the problem feels too big and confusing.

“There's still a sense of denial, because I think if people all of a sudden go ‘Yes, climate change is real. And yes, there is something I have to do’, then they have to do something. And for some people, that’s really hard.”

Hard, but not impossible, as Peri Drysdale, founder of the sustainable knitwear fashion label Untouched World tells Nikki Mandow for the podcast.

Untouched World is living proof running a profitable, environmentally-focussed business is possible.

Drysdale founded the Christchurch-based company in 1981. But as she travelled the world selling her brands in the 1990s, she was shocked by the pace of environmental deterioration, and the lack of commitment from companies to change.

“For business, it was about revenue and bottom line, there was just absolute deafening silence about the impact of any of that. It just wasn't thought about.

“You know, a PR person once said to me, ‘Aren’t you before your time? The world doesn’t want this’. I was starting a business before there was a gap in the market. It was just a commitment I made to myself, that we would see this through, no matter how long it took.”

These days, Drysdale is seen as a global ambassador for the sustainable fashion movement with her clothes being worn by well-known figures from Barack Obama to Prince Harry.

There are other things holding businesses back too, Gerri Ward says. Short term thinking is one, consumer apathy another.

Market research shows that while people say ITALS they want to buy sustainable products from environmentally conscious companies … most of them don’t.
We go for what’s cheap.

Meanwhile, it's easy to be bamboozled by the greenwashing that’s going on.

Still, Ward says pulling the sustainable wool over people’s eyes is an increasingly risky tactic for brands.
“What you're finding, particularly with millennials, is rather than saying, ‘I'm going to buy this particular brand of cosmetic, or face cream or clothing or shoes, because they do a sustainable version of the thing that I like’, [they’re saying] ‘I expect all of your products to have embedded sustainability into your offer. And if you don't, I will never ever buy from you again.’

Sustainability after the earthquake

For the podcast, Mandow also talks to Christchurch Airport CEO Malcolm Johns. After finding itself seriously short of customers after the 2012 earthquake, the airport company chose a push to sustainability as a platform to rebuild damaged staff morale.

He talks about some of the carbon reduction projects the company has initiated, including plug-in planes. And he reveals how they have been able to get often expensive changes over the line and still return a dividend to their local and national government shareholders.

“We have an internal investment hurdle that business cases have to get over to invest our capital. And we agreed if there was a strong case for changing the energy from non-renewable to renewable, that we would accept a hurdle rate half a percent below our normal investment hurdle rate.”

Half a percent might not sound a lot, but it’s a big difference, Johns says.

Since 2015, the airport has reduced emissions within its own operations by 90 percent.


In the fifth of our Net Zero: The Road to 2050 podcasts, Nikki Mandow looks at how businesses have got away for so long doing so little for the environment, instead often buying loyalty from eco-conscious customers with meaningless buzzwords. Still as she discovers talking to experts – including pioneer sustainable fashion company founder Peri Drysdale – that’s changing.


Gerri Ward
EY NZ Climate Change and Sustainability Services Director


Episode 05

Duration 27m 33s

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