Have you heard or seen the fallout from the VW emissions scandal?

While it clearly will impact how much people trust what VW say and do for a long time, the ripples for the sustainability industry are also far reaching.

This is because it is hard to re-frame a betrayal of trust. Myths abound and their prevalence turns them into ‘the truth’. Think the five second rule, kids and the sugar rush, lightning never strikes twice in the same place etc) – does anyone come back to check the facts?

The damage done to how much we trust in government funded green programs is a case in point. The Australian green loans  and foil insulation  ‘scandals’, which have been further compounded by the and foot-in-the-door sales style approach used by LED/power saving device companies, has potentially undone much of the good work provided by governments at all levels.

While the key to building trust is universal (do what you say), rebuilding trust in a person, brand, organisation or concept is far more complicated. Greenwash – the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue – rubs off on everyone. And the sustainability industry is not above scrutiny.

The concept of greenwash has been used to make us feel better about our actions and purchases – and to hide wider issues.

From first adopters and big business to climate change sceptics and lazy-bones’, the concept of greenwash has been used to make us feel better about our actions and purchases – and to hide wider issues.

The concept of corporate social responsibility in general is potentially now in question. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been used by many companies to make systemic change to their green credentials which improve sustainability and social outcomes for the community.  VW, who built their reputation on being the greenest of them all, now has to look seriously at the damage done by manipulating results to maintain its status. The ‘people’s car’ has been acting more like the ‘stockholders’ car’, putting profits and perception above people.

The ‘people’s car’ has been acting more like the ‘stockholders’ car’

The company initially took the stonewall approach to solve their problems: no comment; it wasn’t me, it was R&D; we didn’t know. Now they’re switching into relationship building-engagement mode: taking responsibility for their actions and attempting to talk openly with global stakeholders. While these relationships will be the key, it has been a slow, slow start to rebuilding trust. VW’s relationships with governments and the stock market, our relationship with our cars, and our relationship with a company that we thought was our big green friend are all at stake.

Maybe United Nations climate change chief Christian Figueres is right to say the VW scandal could work in our favour. It could drive development of more sustainable vehicles, leading the revolution towards zero emission cars.

But will we believe it?

Locally, in what may be seen as an attempt to rebuild trust in an industry that has lagged in its adoption of more sustainable technology – and the watchdogs supposedly set up to monitor it – the Federal Government has announced a ministerial forum to investigate the introduction of new emission standards here in Australia.

Yet, the questions remain in terms of building and maintaining trust…

How do we work harder to ensure our green credentials are what they purport to be? Should we be doing this without using CSR strategies and self-reporting tools as they key units of measurement? And doesn’t it all come back to doing what you say you do, and backing it up with proof?