In this article, we look at what ‘greenwashing’ is, how and why it is being used, and what is being done to stop it.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing, a term coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986, refers to how some companies mislead stakeholders about their environmental and ethical credentials by spending more on marketing themselves as being environmentally friendly and ethical when, in fact, it is not the case. This practice is most likely to be something found in industries where the environmental impact of production and waste are known to be great, e.g. oil and gas, consumer electronics, fashion, and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) packaging.
A widely publicised climate emergency, knowledge of ethical issues in production, publicity and pressure from campaigners and political movements, the availability of choice, and the rise of social media are all factors that have led to more consumers being better informed and more engaged with how their consumption is linked to environmental and ethical issues. Many of these consumers are now more likely to reject products with known poor environmental/ethical credentials and favour those (i.e. choose to purchase and feel more loyal towards) entities whose credentials are believed to be good and whose values they share. For example, a Nielsen report showed that 66 percent of consumers said they would pay more for sustainable brands. Unfortunately, another survey (TerraChoice) has shown that 98 percent of green-labelled products may actually be greenwashed.
Until there is a more unified, global approach to climate change from institutions and governments, economic factors and mass consumption are, to a large extent, in conflict with tackling climate change. Making products from raw materials to feed demand at a competitive price and in a way that is profitable can lead some companies to make short-term, environmentally damaging, and perhaps unethical decisions. Some companies know, therefore that by disguising their operations they can reap the positive benefits of being perceived as green whilst not investing in green solutions and practices.
Some popular methods of greenwashing include:
- Making changes to logos, brands, names, labelling and packaging (using environmental images and claims about the nature of ingredients), and differentiating product lines.
- Irrelevant claims, ‘lesser of two evil’ claims, and hidden trade-offs.
- Associating themselves with charities, environmental and ethical organisations (e.g. using logos, and donation information).
- Presenting data and figures and making claims that would be difficult to substantiate.
- Publicising environmental programs that companies are/have been involved with and using distraction tactics.
- The use of language/environmental buzzwords and soundbites that could be misleading (e.g. eco-friendly, bio, mineral, happy, green, healthy, herbal, non-hazardous, pure, re-usable, recyclable, free-range).
Examples of Greenwashing
There are many, widely publicised examples of what could be called greenwashing, often by well known brands (as these are newsworthy and attract more publicity). Please note that it could also be argued (or dismissed) by these companies that rather than greenwashing, it was simply a mistake/not thought through/not intended to deceive etc, which in some cases, could be legitimate arguments. With this in mind, a few examples of greenwashing might include:
- The McDonalds fast-food company publicising a switch (in some UK branches) to ‘fully-recyclable’, paper straws from plastic straws in 2018. The move backfired when the thickness of the straws meant that they couldn’t be recycled in the normal way, and a packaging supplier pointed out the issue was not with the straws but the need for investment in the UK’s recycling infrastructure.
- The H&M clothes recycling scheme for World Recycle Week (2016), where customers could return their old H&M jumpers to the stores, from where they would be sent for recycling. It was found that only a small amount of the fibre could be recycled and that, based on the company’s publicised figures, it could take 12 years for H&M to use up 1,000 tons of fashion waste (the same amount of clothes that the company produced in 48 hours).
- A recent move by Tesla to allow customers to buy their electric vehicles with Bitcoin led to criticism when a medium.com article pointed to how, ironically, the cost of buying an energy-saving, environmentally friendly electric-powered Tesla car in Bitcoins could equate to cancelling one third of the CO2 savings for its whole lifetime.
- Ryanair was recently criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for using old information to claim it was the UK’s lowest emission airline after the statistics it used in the advert didn’t include many rival airlines and were based on 2011 data.
- Back in 2008, oil and gas company Shell had an advert banned which claimed that a project involving strip-mining of 140,000 sq km of Alberta and the building of the world’s largest oil refinery equated to a ‘sustainable’ project. The advert about the project was banned due to a lack of supporting data about how operations would help manage climate change.
There are some practices that could be considered more in terms of hidden aspects and trade-offs that feed into greenwashing. These include:
- Planned/built-in obsolescence. One example could be Apple products. Although the company publicises its stores, offices, and data centres as being fully by renewable electricity, and all its operations (including commuting and business travel) as carbon neutral, older models of products (e.g. older iPhones and iPods) aren’t updatable with the latest operating systems and apps, thereby severely limiting the usefulness of the hardware.
- The right to repair. The fact that many tech products/consumer devices, for example, are manufactured in a way, and/or contain labels (voiding warranties if opened) that appear to prevent third-party repairs or force the owner to use only the services of the maker, is a practice related to greenwashing in many cases. It has led to legislation, primarily in the US and the EU, to give consumers the right to repair their own consumer electronic devices, which they may have bought with green claims in mind, and thereby prevent the environmental impact of disposal.
- Carbon-offsetting. Companies may use carbon-offsetting, often in good faith, but as environmental campaigners such as Greenpeace point out, it may not really work because companies need to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. There is also an argument that carbon offsetting doesn’t deliver the level of carbon savings that it claims, and that it may simply allow companies to continue with unsustainably carbon-intensive behaviours and lifestyles while feeling good about themselves and promoting a positive image.
What Does This Man For Your Business?
The economic and commercial reasons for greenwashing, on whatever scale, are obvious, and although it may enable companies to benefit in the short-term, it is a high-risk strategy for consumer trust and business continuity as well as for the environment. Being found-out for deceiving consumers in this way can be damaging for brands and profits, but the real damage comes from activities globally that are contributing to the climate emergency. A global effort, right from the individual level up to companies, institutions, governments is needed on all fronts to help tackle this monumental challenge. Greenwashing is a threat to the success of this because, by deception, it prevents good environmental choices being made whilst enabling companies to carry on with environmentally damaging practices, the losers being all of us, including those who are using greenwashing. As a greater focus and effort comes to bear upon tackling environmental issues, greenwashing attempts are now being spotted, scrutinised, and publicly called-out by pressure and environmental groups, consumer, and adverting standards associations, and punished through legislation. For example, The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has proposed to introduce legislation within this year to tackle greenwashing and false claims surrounding ‘eco-friendly’ products. Keeping-up the effort to discourage and ‘out’ greenwashing practices is one important front in the fight to protect the planet.
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