COP26, Credibility, Contribution

I was 21 when I moved to London, and found a job as the head waitress in a tacky French restaurant in Covent Garden. One of my clearest memories is my manager hurriedly (and drunkenly, as standard) approaching me one afternoon to warn me that head office would be in to check up on us imminently. I nodded and replied “okay, I’ll make sure we all look busy then.” He snapped back. “No, you need to all actually be busy’. Oops.

Well COP26 is next week and, in my brand new career in sustainability, the proverbial head office is en route to Glasgow. World leaders (with notable exceptions), activists, corporates, civil interest groups and every other non-state actor will be present for the first time in COP history, and the difference between those trying to look busy and those who genuinely are will be intensely scrutinised.

Now, this isn’t the forum for outing companies for pulling the smoke and mirrors act, but if the 7 ‘deadly sins’ of greenwashing are¹:

  • Hidden trade-offs
  • Unsubstantiated claims
  • Vagueness
  • False labels
  • Irrelevant claims
  • “The lesser of two evils” argument
  • Outright lies.

I would like to propose an 8th especially for COP — Virtue signalling corporate sponsorships.

In a perfect world (!), anyone showing up to COP without credible solutions and actionable plans to implement those solutions will not be given the time of day. It should be concerning then that media spend at COP is skyrocketing, and paid pavilion spots in the Green Zone and elsewhere mean that everyone — regardless of sustainability credentials — can and will show up for the right price². Of course, that’s not entirely bad. That money will go into supporting the event and I, for one, am a firm believer in not letting impossible, virtuous notions of perfection stand in the way of progress. But those businesses declaring presence without action, to my mind, will not be welcome at an event where all concerned parties are calling for verifiable roadmaps towards net zero and replenished biodiversity.

Thankfully Pinwheel — where I have been assigned to as an Associate — is a startup which is deeply focussed on practical solutions to repair the planet. At the heart of its offer are subscription packages that allow customers to fund a range of planet-saving projects, with the aim to bridge the gap between consumers, businesses and groundbreaking environmental work. I expect they will truly shine as one of the companies offering routes to action in a swathe of businesses frantically trying to look busy.

I’ve personally been thrust — and I mean thrust — headlong into managing the logistics for the event (which I’m pleased to say I will attend with the team). I’ve also been working with the CMO and CSO on the surrounding communications, helping to distil and amplify Pinwheel’s messaging. Central to this is a paradigm shift; a shift that pushes beyond the Polluter Pays Principle³, in which companies can retrospectively compensate for their environmental damage, and replaces it with a more optimistic and empowering sense of contribution. Contribution towards technological advances that will fast-track carbon removal and protect biodiversity.

At times hectic, at times uncertain, but more often exhilarating and rewarding, I feel the same excitement going to COP that I felt moving to The Big Smoke as a wide-eyed graduate. Except on this occasion, I’m busy helping a team achieve planet-saving change, rather than just trying to look it.


  1. de Freitas Netto, S.V., Sobral, M.F.F., Ribeiro, A.R.B. et al. Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environ Sci Eur 32, 19 (2020).
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/05/cop26-fears-smaller-nations-will-be-priced-out-of-hosting-pavilions
  3. Beder, Sharon. Environmental principles and policies: an interdisciplinary introduction. Routledge, 2013.