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How Greenwashing Really Can Make a Difference

"You're kidding yourself," my father tells me, "if you think paying a little extra for your power supply means that it's any cleaner. When the wind isn't blowing and there's little sunlight, everyone's energy is just as dirty as the next person. The grid doesn't discriminate."

Of course, he is correct. Throughout almost my entire life he has worked in various powerstations, from some of the worst in Australia down in the Gippsland to the modern, "cleaner" gas powered turbines in Adelaide. He knows better than most people the reality of our power supply and even though he faces some of the more typical denial noise within his work place remains convinced about the reality of anthropogenic global warming (believe it or not, without much influence from me – it's not a subject we much talk about, nor has he read my blog or reports).

The above statement came along in one of the very few discussions we had on a related subject. He was relaying to me a point that he had made to my mother's friends one evening. They were shocked by his assertion – clearly feeling that they were doing the right thing by purchasing "green-power", which, potentially, they are.

Green-power is little more than a sales pitch to cash in on the new wave of eco-conscious customers. Include a few photos of wind turbine and some daisies against a clear blue sky or sun drenched solar panels and the illusion is set. A certain section of the community will agree to pay a little more, feeling confident that their power comes through, reliably and strong, largely from renewable sources, backed up where necessary by modern clean gas turbines.

We're all the better for it.

What's more, the bills are delivered, wrapped in rough brown, recycled paper envelopes and contain a graph, explicitly outlining just how much CO2 the customer's efforts have avoided. It's hard not feel good, yet this all is clearly the result of "greenwashing".

There's no guarantee, after all, that the particular electrons travelling through your light global are moving as a result of turbines spinning in the breeze or turning as the result of burning fossil fuels. The same can be said about any appliance anywhere that is attached to a grid powered by such a mix. Why then should anyone pay for a product they are not really getting?

The fact of the matter is, without power we will not be able to have the standard of living now obtainable and expected in Australia and many developed countries. Likewise, without consumers, power suppliers go out of business.

We need each other and there's simply no way we can kid ourselves otherwise. The same cannot be said, however, for non-renewable energy sources. Providers of fossil fuels would be wise to invest in other directions increasingly over the coming decades.

I've recently began discussions on efficiency and as it's not directly the focus of this article, I will only state that it is unlikely that the next generation of housing will have the same luxury of being as poorly built and inefficient as the modern house is, for constant climate control will simply become too expensive. Once realistic boundaries have been set for human activity, efficiency can make headway on improving the standard of living globally.

For power providers, acting sooner in this framework would be beneficial.

Greenwashing their product has limited appeal and, as the past few years has demonstrated on the topic of climate change, the general public are relatively new to the concepts behind eco-consciousness and also increasingly wary of the green-gimmick. Sending a slightly higher bill in a 100% recycled paper envelope with many inserted niceties will only go so far.

As living expenses increase (as they are under business-as-usual), the greenwash will fade away – losing what could have been a potential avenue for revenue raising for research and development.

And that may very well be the required angle for long term sustainability and consumer participation! Rather than taking the warm and fuzzy approach, why not be honest with the consumer?

In this way allow for voluntary involvement through a small percentage increase in product price, as is already the case with green-power, which is instead put towards corporate coordinated R&D. No one consumer on the grid in reality has any cleaner supply of energy than any other, but those involved in funding R&D do have a very real role in making the overall supply more sustainable.

That should be the pitch!

Of course, there needs to be more than just words behind all of this – and that is exactly what is in the best interest for both the supplier and their customers. Communications with customers should be general (rather than the fluffy green-bills); aimed at the entire customer base, explicitly outlining improvements made over a given time period that occurred with the assistance of those customers who chipped in to make it possible. In this way, it's an educational device that brings home (quite literally) a real sense of community working together to improve human activity.

All customers are then aware of the acts and results made possible with the assistance of this proactive subgroup of customers.

Once such improvements begin to provide savings, it should also be made clear that those who "invested" in R&D are the first to see the benefits in their bills, eventually also reaching the wider customer base (thanks to the proactive customers).

Apart from this, truly innovative power providers could also invest in other technology or improvements that can be applied to the home, which they can then provide to their proactive customer base on a regular basis (via magazine or electronic equivalent), with special rates available exclusively to those customers – strengthening customer confidence, improving the "keeping up with the Jones's" effect, increasing urban efficiency, increasing avenues for job growth, for marketing and positive exposure, improving relationships between similarly focuses industries, improving corporate responsibility... the list goes on.

Sure, greenwashing has its place – you would be silly to overlook the new wave of eco-conscious customer. But you would be even more so to overlook the potential attitude change, improvements to corporate responsibility and running costs that can be achieved through genuine application of greenwashing that can be applied for the benefit of both the customer and provider.

Paying to place "eco" in front of the standard name will only go so far, likewise nice photographs of windmills in fields. A smart provider wouldn't treat their customers like idiots, especially those who are aware of the realities of industry.

There is already a large global community of eco-conscious customers out there (and even more who are at least curious) and a very real need to improve human activity while the current reserve of non-renewable energy supply is still cheap enough to assist with the necessary change. In many ways it's a poor investment of time and effort to focus on reaching every citizen on such issues, as is greenwashing that is only face deep, as history has already demonstrated.

By approaching customers with honesty and confident assertion over the reality of such issues facing this century, I honestly believe providers will be pleasantly surprised by the response they receive. It won't be all customers, but it will be a great start!

If industry continues this work with their customers, targeted at improvements of both sides of the equation, while it may lead to less use of certain products (such as would be the hopeful course for energy) new pathways will obviously emerge for sustainable prosperity and customer confidence will remain high: it's simply a win-win for all.