How ‘Greenwashing’ accusations could delay the very changes its supporters demand

  • Published: 26 May 2022,
  • The Say Team

Sustainability – or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) as it is becoming known – is something which all companies – large or small – have to take seriously. The idea that any industry, particularly in the western world, can pollute with abandon or engage with ethically dubious practices has passed. At some point, they will get called out.

But search for ‘pharma’ and ‘carbon emissions’ and the story that dominates is research showing that the industry we all think of as essential to our health actually produces more carbon than the automotive industry.

The US healthcare industry emits an estimated 479 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year; nearly 8% of the country’s total emissions. In England, the NHS is responsible for around 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – equivalent to 6.5% of the UK’s annual total.

Sustainability is an issue everyone must engage with. The power of digital research and communications has, however, also made it easier for anyone to call out practices they believe are papering over the cracks to provide a green sheen of environmental and ethical respectability.


It’s a concept called ‘greenwashing’ – described as ‘a spin to convince consumers that an organisation’s products, aims or methods are environmentally friendly.’

Charges of greenwashing might come from the right place on an activist’s moral compass but they could be counter-productive in achieving the goal of lessening our impact on the planet and taking steps to contribute to a better place to live and work.

And that could be one reason why, according to research from Veolia, fewer than a third of UK businesses have a strategy for reaching carbon neutrality, despite growing environmental concerns.[i]

One of the reasons for this low number could be that 42% of businesses are feeling overwhelmed by the steps they need to take. Another could be the fear of becoming a target of a ‘greenwashing’ campaign which, far from being simply an inconvenience can attract media attention and cause reputational damage.

Sustainability is about practices which meet current needs without compromising the future. That ‘compromise’ comes in a variety of formats, such as skilled workforces, capacity issues – vital in any health and social care service – and the reputation of the industry as a whole.

ESG and the health sector

When it comes to ESG’s ethical aspects and the health sector, the long running issue has been that of the high price of medicines, particularly in the developing world. But ESG in healthcare encapsulates a wide variety of working practices, including supply chains and methods of production to education, training and employee well-being.

Consequently, it is not just in the production and distribution of medicines where developments in the industry can make a real difference. The continued use of telemedicine and the drive towards the greater use of innovative solutions allows patients, particularly those requiring regular interventions, to avoid the car and get care, diagnostics and pathology results the 21st century way; sustainably.

It’s an important step for the whole industry to take together, and it’s not an easy one.

Anything that is a step in the right direction towards business practices which are kinder, friendlier and more sustainable should be applauded. Yes – big companies with deeper wallets can certainly do more but they are also likely to be on the receiving end of accusations of that ‘green sheen’.

However well meaning, the threats of ‘greenwashing’ claims could be causing more harm than good.

By Annabelle S.


What's Next?