On Thursday January 17th, 100 sustainably-minded business individuals from across Waterloo Region came together to assess how they can better communicate their sustainability initiatives with external stakeholders without succumbing to the lazy “greenwashing” standard of marketing.

Two speakers, David Robinson from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), and Scott McDougall, the former owner of TerraChoice Consulting firm., joined our second Educational Forum of the 2012/2013 RCI event season to give their perspective. While discussing the harms of greenwashing and the importance of credibility and transparency in marketing, both speakers strongly emphasized the change that businesses can ignite through credible leadership.

Scott pointed out that a “business sees an opportunity and takes advantage of it”, which is a way to incorporate sustainability into everyday Canadian society. As the popularity of “green” business continues to grow, trajectory, conventional businesses can either keep ahead of the curve by incorporating sustainability into their strategies or get passed by.

However, it is important to not just state your green intentions, but actively demonstrate them. Take the case of MEC as an example. They are unique because they sell products that are directly connected to the environmental movement and have obvious benefits: organic cotton, bicycles, outdoor adventure gear. However, they are also a leader because of the sustainable initiatives they incorporate into building their stores, engaging their employees, or auditing their company’s resource usage through independent third parties.

As these initiatives are marketed as beneficial actions for MEC’s employees, customers, and the planet, MEC will gain followers by showing their sustainability in simple ways the public can understand. The focus should be on attracting consumers through transparent marketing of a company’s sustainability. MEC is an inspiration to Waterloo Region businesses because they pursue sustainability through direct action and share this action with the public.

Transparent marketing is an advantage for companies that want to establish relationships with their customers while promoting innovation and strong citizenship. It stresses showing customers all of the sustainable initiatives an organization is pursuing and how these actions are a part of the company’s mandate. David believes that being transparent is worth it for MEC because of the value that their membership, customers and leadership place on it. They are striving for action and it has resulted in growth year to year, a trajectory that David attributed, in part, to their sustainability initiatives. This balance between numbers and sustainability are why a company like MEC is a leader. And as consumers support the companies that are making changes in their environmental policies, they need to be simultaneously pushing for more.

Scott McDougall ended with a lesson he learned from the all of the media responses and thousands of stories that came out from the Sins of Greenwashing campaign: the world is watching. The focus now needs to be on providing a cohesive plan for businesses, governments, and citizens to create a more sustainable future for the generations that are just learning to walk. Businesses will continue to be leaders in this change as more people commit to sustainability. Will enough businesses take this torch and provide the leverage needed to improve sustainability across Canada while doing so in an open and trustworthy way? The world is watching. And hoping.