Recruitment red flags: How to spot greenwashing in an interview

Apr 30, 2024

5 mins

Recruitment red flags: How to spot greenwashing in an interview
Marcela Ospina LopezLab expert

Communications and Sustainability consultant. VP of Sustainability and Culture at Both People & Comms, and Director of the Master in Communication Management at EADA Business School.

In recent years, sustainability has become a major concern for companies and workers alike as consumer preferences shift significantly towards products and services that are more sustainable, and regulatory bodies worldwide are imposing stricter regulations. Moreover, investors are increasingly considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria when making investment decisions while younger generations are looking to join companies with a greater purpose and higher ethical standards. Consequently, companies that prioritize sustainability not only enhance their reputation, and boost their employer brand and customer loyalty but also mitigate risks, ensuring long-term viability.

“The candidates’ interest in sustainability issues has been evolving. Younger people, in addition to asking us about salary issues and those related to their role, want to know about our sustainability policies, the culture of the organization, and the promotion of diversity and inclusion,” says Sandra Vicente, HR Director for Spain & Portugal at Amgen, an American multinational biotech company.

In today’s race to broadcast positive corporate messages, corporate greenwashing can easily mislead job seekers about a company’s true commitment to sustainability. Greenwashing is a behavior or activity that leads people to falsely believe that a company or organization is doing more to protect the environment than it actually is. Candidates need to be able to recognize greenwashing in today’s job market, as it can tell you a lot about the company’s integrity and the future work environment.

This unfounded or misleading information doesn’t only apply to environmental aspects. There are also practices of “social washing” that occur when companies are promoting a positive social image or engaging in charitable activities primarily for marketing purposes, without making substantial changes to address key social issues like poverty or inequality.

Understanding sustainability certifications, standards, and reports

One way job hunters can evaluate a company’s true commitment to sustainability is by looking at certifications and standards. Many certifications awarded to companies are usually the result of rigorous third-party analyses and audits, for example, the B Corp certification is conferred by B Lab, a global non-profit organization. To become certified, companies have to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. Many large companies have already joined the United Nations Global Compact making public their commitment. Although it’s not a certification, it’s a voluntary initiative encouraging businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies by aligning their operations and strategies with ten universally accepted principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption.

There are also global standards like the GRI Standards (Global Reporting Initiative) that help organizations measure and communicate their economic, environmental, social, and governance performance. Companies often choose certifications based on their sector, specific sustainability goals, and the regional or global recognition of the certification within their industry. In this packed landscape it can be very difficult for the average worker to find clarity on which label, certification, or standard is reliable, or the best one based on the type of activity that the company undertakes. A European Commission study from 2020 highlighted that 53.3% of examined environmental claims in the EU were found to be vague, misleading, or unfounded and 40% were unsubstantiated. The absence of common rules for companies making voluntary green claims often leads to ‘greenwashing’ and creates an uneven playing field in the EU market, to the disadvantage of genuinely sustainable companies.

For this reason, the European Commission proposed a year ago common criteria against greenwashing and misleading environmental claims. According to the proposal, when companies choose to make a ‘green claim’ about their products or services, they will have to respect norms on how they substantiate these claims and how they communicate them. In terms of reporting and accountability, we’re also witnessing greater demands in Europe. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) requires all large companies and all listed companies to disclose information regarding the impact of their activities on people and the environment, as well as an audit of the reported information. With these new regulations, people, workers, and candidates will hopefully have more clarity, stronger reassurance, and higher-quality information to look at when choosing which products, services, brands, and companies to support.

Asking the right questions

If you’re in the middle of a recruitment process, you should ask specific questions to understand the truth about a company’s sustainability efforts. Questions about the impact of their initiatives or how sustainability shapes their business strategies will help you gain a more concrete understanding of their practices. The depth of the answer is key and can reveal a lot about a potential employer.

Some examples of questions you can ask are:

  • “Can you share some recent sustainability projects your company has undertaken?” This question helps gauge the company’s active involvement in sustainability. Their ability to detail recent projects reflects genuine, ongoing commitment rather than vague future promises.
  • “What measurable impacts have your sustainability initiatives achieved?” Asking for measurable impacts shows interest in the effectiveness and tangible results of their sustainability efforts, which can differentiate genuine practices from mere greenwashing.
  • “What challenges has your company faced in implementing sustainable practices, and how have you addressed them?” This question probes into the company’s problem-solving approach toward sustainability, indicating a serious and realistic commitment beyond surface-level efforts.
  • “How does your company involve its employees in sustainability practices?” This question helps you understand the company culture around sustainability. Active employee involvement often indicates a more ingrained and authentic commitment to these practices.
  • “What are your company’s long-term goals for sustainability, and how are you planning to achieve them?” Long-term goals and concrete plans indicate foresight and a strategic approach to sustainability, rather than temporary or opportunistic measures.
  • “How has your company’s sustainability policy evolved in the last few years?” This question gauges adaptability and growth in the company’s approach to sustainability, showing a commitment to continuous improvement.
  • “Can you tell me about any collaborations your company has with environmental or social organizations?” Partnerships with impact organizations can signal a deeper level of commitment to sustainability and willingness to engage with broader efforts beyond the company’s immediate interests.

Getting real answers

If you’re ready to ask those courageous questions, you will need to evaluate the sincerity and depth of responses from employers about their sustainability practices. Look for detailed and specific answers. Vague mentions or a focus solely on future plans and aspirations might indicate superficial commitment. Genuine efforts are usually accompanied by clear, concrete examples based on impact, often including data and real stories of positive transformation.

Paola Lopez, engagement manager at McKinsey & Company and recent Harvard MBA graduate, shares a piece of advice that will complement your research: “Ask people who have worked at the company you want to join to understand their real culture and determine the veracity of their claims. Specifically, ask people who have concerns and values similar to yours.”

Red flags to look out for

Some red flags that may indicate that a company’s sustainability declaration might be superficial include things like inconsistencies between their claims or public statements and interview responses, a lack of specific examples, and evasive answers. Transparency is key when it comes to genuine sustainability practices, and if your interviewer is not being transparent, you should think twice about joining the company.

You should also be aware of the excessive use of terms like “earth-friendly”, “eco-conscious” or “100% natural” without factual evidence to support these claims. Another red flag is mentioning one-off initiatives. Companies that only focus on one or two actions or small projects without a comprehensive and ongoing commitment to creating long-lasting solutions to social or environmental issues might be engaging in greenwashing.

When it comes to spotting greenwashing in an interview, it’s important to stay informed and be critical. Research the company’s public sustainability reports before the interview and compare them with what you learn in the conversation. Your role as a candidate, and as a citizen, is also to hold companies accountable for their environmental and social claims.

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Recruitment red flags: How to spot greenwashing in an interview