24 March 2010

On Greenwashing and Innovation

This post is a follow-up to the presentation I made on Innovation two weeks ago, and was crossposted to the event hosts' website. Frequent readers of Booming Back will forgive the lack of overtly cynical tirades and rabid polemics, sometimes it makes sense to hide the grumpy during the day-job.

On Greenwashing and Innovation

While reviewing the notes from the World Cafe sessions at the recent Sustainably Minded Enterprise event, I was struck by the fact that a number of separate groups had raised the spectre of 'Greenwashing' as a challenge to any new sustainable business initiative. With much of the Government's recovery efforts focused on the Green Economy, those who have been working within the Green Economy for many years now are concerned that there will be a dilution of Green standards both in actuality and, perhaps more damagingly, in the perception of the general public, as more and more businesses and activities seek to reclassify themselves as "Sustainable" or "Green" to avail of Government funding, tax relief, or simply as a marketing angle given the media profile attached to the sector.

While an Oil Company trying to portray itself as Green is unlikely to convince many members of the public, its attempts to do so will instill doubt in the public over the validity of any business that uses the label 'Green'. This is the real danger that Greenwashing presents, not that a single company can make erroneous claims, rather that the reputation of an entire sector can be tarnished.

Recognizing the potential for such a widespread negative impact, this week saw the release in the UK of Government guidelines on the use of Green and environmental claims in advertising, particularly on use of phrases such as or "eco" or "environmentally friendly", and according to Fred Pearce in the Guardian the new guidelines call for Green claims to be "clear, accurate and verifiable". While unfortunately these guidelines do not carry the full force of law, they do acknowledge the concerns of the public and seek to reign in some of the more outlandish advertising practices.

This was in my mind last night as I followed the reports of yesterday's Cabinet reshuffle, specifically with the rebranding of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, and started to wonder are we now entering into an age of "Innovationwashing"? To be clear less than 24 hours after the creation of a new Government department there is no way that any judgement can be passed on the legitimacy of its new name and focus, rather I have been struck by the frequency with which the word "innovation" is appearing in conversations in both the Public and Private sector, alarmingly with little explanation of what exactly is meant by the term. I am reminded of meetings I had with Irish political groups in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama's successful Presidential campaign in the US, where more than once I heard people profess "well I don't know what the Internet is, but by God we have to have it".

In the last week alone we have seen the launch of the Innovation Ireland report by the Taoiseach, the establishment of an Innovation Center in San Jose to help Irish companies target Silicon Valley, and our own EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn issue a report that placed Ireland in the middle tier of EU Innovation nations.

But does anyone actually know what 'Innovation' is?

According to the Oxford Online dictionary 'Innovation' is "the action or process of innovating". A search for "innovating" refers you back to the definition for "Innovation".

Innovation is thus a nebulous Ouroboros, forever consuming its own tail. We don't know what it is but by God we have to have it.

To be fair to the Oxford Online, it does offer a second definition of 'an Innovation' (the object, not the process) as "a new method, idea, product, etc.", so the process of Innovation can best be described as 'The act of creating something new'. However a criticism that has been leveled at the recent Innovation Ireland report is that it simply seeks to expand the loose regulation and tax regimes existent in the Irish Financial sector to other sectors in an effort to attract more multi-nationals to establish operations in Ireland. Within the report are proposals for attracting IP (Intellectual Property) Rich businesses to Ireland on the basis of our tax regime, which as TASC highlights would mirror the current environment where large corporations funnel their global revenue through their Irish subsidiaries without the creation of any local R&D jobs, or the fostering of a local culture of innovation. Again as TASC points out "In this report, the word “tax” is mentioned 127 times, the word “food” eight times and the words “manufacture” or “manufacturing” just 24 times".

To me this does not seem to be "a new method, idea, product, etc.", it simply means the expansion of an existing scheme with no ongoing sustainable benefits for Irish society. While this would see increased returns for the exchequer, it would make no contribution to the creation of a sustainable culture of research and development in Ireland, and we would make no progress towards establishing an environment of Innovation Independence unaffected by the turmoils of the international market. It highlights the need to critically examine the use of the word 'Innovation', and ensure that such claims are "clear, accurate and verifiable".

I would suggest that a successful government policy towards Innovation should not be focused excessively on encouraging international investment into Ireland through Multinationals attracted by liberal tax regimes, rather it should concentrate on fostering a strong native Micro-enterprise and SME sector, developed by a highly educated entrepreneurial workforce who are equipped by a world-class education system for 21st century creative ventures, not 19th century factory jobs.

Anything else is just "Innovationwashing".

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