A recent dining experience at an (unnamed) Boston restaurant left me with more than an unsatisfied tummy.
At the restaurant, I quickly noticed the menu (and the restaurant’s website) loudly broadcasted messages about both the food and wine being produced using “ecologically sustainable methods.” When our waiter came to take our drink orders, I asked him what it meant exactly that the wine choices were produced using such methods. The waiter returned my question with a blank stare and, after an agonizing 10 seconds, responded, “I have absolutely no idea.”
As a communicator, what’s most concerning to me about this encounter is not only the blatant “greenwashing.” Rather, it’s that this incident demonstrates how words like “sustainable” – which are meant to evoke leadership and responsibility – have simply lost their meaning. The waiter did not seem the least concerned by my skepticism or his ineffective response. This suggests the restaurant may have been operating under the assumption that its patrons would just take at face value words like “ecological.” After all, these are some of the more commonplace environmental phrases in the English language today.
But these expressions have become so overused, that they are now oversimplified. As a result, it’s not enough for organizations simply to parrot these phrases; instead, they must:
1) Be prepared to defend their words. Words can only go so far. Organizations need to back up these words with action – or evidence of action – in order to engender stakeholder trust. Spouting values must not replace living values.
2) Prepare employees to be credible ambassadors of their core messages. The above example underscores the importance of ensuring that employees both understand and can effectively communicate organizational messages. Front-line employees serve as the face of an organization, and how they represent that organization influences stakeholder perceptions.
In an ideal world, organizations would take full responsibility for their words and how they use them. But in reality, organizations often need an extra push. The FTC Green Guides are a good step in urging organizations to use discretion in environmental marketing claims. But what these organizations really need is a shove. So, much of the onus is on us as consumers – and communicators – to encourage responsible behavior. We need to continue to ask smart, challenging questions that compel organizations to take responsibility not only for their deeds, but also for their words. What’s more, we need to hold smaller organizations like this restaurant establishment equally as accountable for their environmental claims as we do the “big dogs” of corporate America.
I, for one, will likely not be dining at this particular restaurant again. Both its “sustainable” wine and communications left much to be desired.
- Jamie Josephson, Senior Account Executive