Nowadays, it seems like every big company promotes an image of sustainability. A common example is the now-ubiquitous hotel-bathroom notice invoking images of ocean animals or pastoral scenery in an effort to convince guests to reuse their towels for the sake of the environment. While notices of this kind do have the potential to save water and energy, unfortunately their true purpose is often only to promote a sustainable image—regardless of actual water and energy savings.

Earlier this year, I encountered one such eco-friendly notice in a run-of-the-mill American budget hotel chain located off a highway somewhere south of Seattle, Washington. This particular notice used the image of a smiling dolphin to convince me to reuse my towel for the sake of “decreasing water and energy consumption” and “[reducing] the amount of detergent wastewater.”

Being the energy and sustainability nerd that I am, I enthusiastically and carefully hung my towel up on the nearby rack after showering, and then left for the day content with the fact that my hotel had given me an out from the very wasteful practice of washing a towel after just one use.

When I returned to my room later that evening, any fuzzy sustainability feelings I had quickly vanished. I had left my room at approximately 9:30 a.m. with the windows ajar and the air conditioning off. When I returned sometime after 11 p.m. and peeled open the door, I was met by a tidal wave of freezing air pouring out of my room into the hallway. From the doorway, I could hear the window-mounted air conditioner rumbling and clanking as it struggled to pump more and more cold air into the room to no avail. I rushed to the end of the room and hastily twisted the air conditioning knob from the “Max Cool” position to the “Off” position. As the air conditioner rumbled to a halt, I remembered the towel that I had delicately hung over the towel rack that morning. I walked back toward the bathroom and peered in to see two freshly washed towels neatly folded on the towel rack above the toilet. The towel I had left to hang was gone.

The hotel had not only wasted an untold amount of electricity by turning the air conditioner to “Max Cool” while I was away, they had also disregarded their own well-intentioned message by replacing my neatly hung towel with a freshly washed one.

The point of this story is not that a hotel in Washington State betrayed the naïve corporate sustainability notions of an energy nerd. The point is that big companies can and should say what they mean and mean what they say when it comes to sustainability—in other words, its time for corporations to end the practice of “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing is the now-common marketing and public relations practice of promoting the perception that products or services are environmentally friendly—despite the fact that no sincere effort is made to save energy or protect the environment. I had heard of the term before my hotel greenwashing experience, but only after researching this article did I discover that, oddly enough, the term was first coined in a 1986 essay by Jay Westerveld pointing out the irony of trite hotel notices just like the one pictured above.

Have we really advanced so little in the nearly three decades that have passed since Westerveld first wrote about his annoyance with feigned corporate environmentalism? Our understanding of energy and the environment has advanced so much since then, but it seems, in this case, corporate sustainability practices have not.

Big corporations have an enormous opportunity to reduce energy use and emissions. Unlike ordinary small energy users, corporate executives can make binding operational decisions that spread small energy savings across their entire national or international operations, resulting in hugely magnified energy savings in aggregate. Furthermore, corporations often have the capital required to invest in energy efficiency retrofits that will pay for themselves over the years. Ordinary homeowners can’t always afford the upfront cost of better insulation, a new air conditioner, or water-efficient toilets, even if those investments are guaranteed to pay for themselves over time.

From a societal perspective, improving energy efficiency is important because it is one of the least costly ways to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In a now-famous holistic analysis that looked at the cost of various GHG-reducing interventions and the total GHG abatement potential, McKinsey & Company found that many forms of energy efficiency produce an overall financial benefit—rather than a cost—making energy efficiency one of the most appealing strategies for reversing the global warming trend.

McKinsey & Company performed a holistic analysis estimating the cost of various interventions to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The height of each bar indicates the GHG abatement cost per ton of emissions, and the width of each bar indicates the GHG abatement potential per intervention. The bars are sorted in order of ascending cost and placed side-by-side to show the total GHG abatement potential.

The potential for corporations to reduce their energy use, save money, and protect the environment is a win-win. That’s why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) established their Climate Corps fellowship, which places graduate students in leading companies and public-sector institutions to reveal energy savings and the associated cost reduction potential. Since Climate Corps inception, fellows have realized nearly $1.4 billion in energy savings and over 1.8 million tons of potential GHG emissions reductions. For example, Duke University’s Koji Kitazume identified nearly 3 million kilowatt-hours of annual energy savings at 775 company-owned U.S. McDonalds restaurants.

Rather than spend money on inflating a false environmental image through marketing, big companies should invest in real energy efficiency strategies and technologies that will actually save them money over time. Over and over again, analysis and experience shows that the potential to save energy and reduce emissions is there. If a company has real energy and emissions savings to report, then by all means they should share that information with their customers, but saving energy should come before the marketing pitch—not after.


Image credit: