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Secret sustainability: Why many businesses hide their green credentials

You would imagine any company that figures out how to do something more sustainably than other businesses would make it known to the public. That, however, is far from the truth. Cassandra Coburn unveils the unseen world of secret sustainability, whereby innovations are silently enacted and kept from the rest of the industry. 

Take, for instance, two well-known wineries in Portugal that have quietly switched from conventional to organic practices. They ditched all unnatural pesticides and fertilizers, investing heavily in technology that keeps the soil strong without anything artificial. The result is healthier soil and vines and an 18 percent harvest increase per hectare – with a significantly reduced environmental footprint. And they haven’t told their retail customers. Why? 

According to one professor, the answer might stem from a perception that there must be some downside to the introduction of sustainable practices, either a reduction in product quality or an increase in the price of manufacturing. In the case of the wineries, both already had good reputations for quality. All they wanted to do was to keep giving consumers great wine at a good price, without degrading their soil. 

Another example of secret sustainability comes from the car industry. After 15 years of dedicated effort, a well-known car manufacturer reduced the amount of energy to make its cars by 75 percent, making four cars using the same amount of energy it formerly took to make one. Still, it didn’t make this known, not because the innovations were trade secrets, but because the management was worried that to flag one area of innovation in the business for praise might attract unwanted attention to parts of its operation that were less sustainable, sparking accusations of “green-washing”. It goes to show that when it comes to industry sustainability, it’s not as black-and-white as it may seem.

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