The self-congratulatory masters of greenwash gathered to applaud one other with an audacity that defies belief
- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 9 July 2009 / Fred Pearce
But no, this column has not decided to hand out a set of glittering emerald prizes. Monday night was showtime for the Responsible Business Awards, with Business in the Community (BITC) and its president, Prince Charles handing out the gongs.
We've had a go at BITC here before. Well meaning it may be, but it seems to have tipped over from being a promoter of ethical business practice to an apologist for greenwash. But this week its 850 members were giving prizes to each other at a canapes-and-strawberries bash in the garden at Clarence House.
The prize-giving seems to be financially sustainable, at least, with past winners saying thank you for the free publicity by forking out to pay for the marquees and sponsor the awards. But the chutzpah that lies behind it defies belief.
Take the Bank of America Climate Change Award. That would be the Bank of America that was the world's biggest underwriter of debt – and so probably a tad responsible for the mess the planet is in – until it had to be bailed out by the US taxpayer to the tune of $20bn (£12.4bn) in January.
Who were the finalists for this much-coveted award? They included United Biscuits (consumers of palm oil from Indonesian former rainforests) and the world's largest car-maker, Toyota, so I guess we should be relieved that it went to Marks & Spencer.
Next up was the Asda Environmental Leadership Award. Asda? Environmental leadership? Two years ago it promised to ban products containing unsustainable palm oil from rainforests.
But, as I reported here a few weeks ago, it has not even updated consumers on its progress towards that target, which is an apparent breach of its promises as a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It still hasn't.
The Asda award was won by its retail rival, the Co-op. Which I guess, if words mean anything, recognises that Asda is playing catch-up. But all things are relative. The Co-op itself is more than two years behind with its online reporting at the Roundtable.
Then came the Procter & Gamble Responsible Marketing and Innovation Award. My P&G file is bulging. P&G is the world's largest producer of stuff on supermarket shelves, and a master of greenwash.
My colleague Alison Benjamin had a go here recently at its PR branding of detergents like Fairy Liquid and Ariel as "future friendly".
P&G is also under legal attack from consumer groups in the US for refusing to reveal ingredients in detergents like Tide and Mr Clean.
Also questionable on the "responsible marketing" front are its enthusiastic selling of Pampers disposable nappies in developing countries and deodorants to teenage cheerleaders. And last May animal rights activists were sufficiently angry at its testing of hair products to organise a Global Boycott Procter & Gamble Day.
Who won the coveted P&G award? Here we defy parody. Thames Water won for its "campaign to promote the serving of tap water in London's restaurants, bars and hotels". Now promoting tap water over bottled water is a good and green thing to do. But, forgive me, isn't tap water just about the only thing that Thames Water sells? It would be one of life's great surprises if it were not promoting its one and only product. Does it deserve a prize for this self-sacrifice?
There were some worthy winners. The BITC supply chain award went to Supreme Creations, who employ 2,000 women in south India making cotton and jute "bags for life".
But, as the Guardian reported, the Supreme Creations founder and boss, Dr R Sri Ram, slagged off most of the retailers assembled in Prince Charles' garden for failing to adopt bags for life in the way that rivals in other countries have. It seemed a fitting response to this self-congratulatory exercise in greenwashing.