Many firms are becoming more sustainable in how they run to gain favour with consumers as people around the world grow more conscious of the importance of their everyday decisions and purchases. This is a good thing in theory, but many people are simply putting on an act of sustainability while continuing to engage in activities that produce more garbage or greenhouse gases. This is known as "greenwashing," but what is it precisely, and how can you avoid corporations that do it?
What is the term "greenwashing"?
Greenwashing is when a firm or organisation spends more time and money presenting itself as environmentally friendly than genuinely reducing its environmental impact. It's a deceptive marketing strategy to gain favour with customers who prefer to support companies that care about the environment. Greenwashing consumes significant resources in the fight against environmental challenges such as climate change, plastic waste in the oceans, air pollution, and global species extinction.
Environmentalist Jay Westerveld developed the phrase "greenwashing" in 1986 in an essay criticising the absurdity of the "save the towel" movement at hotels at the time. He was struck by the massive amount of waste he had encountered throughout the hotel, and by the lack of clear indicators of efforts to become more sustainable. Instead, he claimed, the hotel was just trying to save money by not having to launder as many towels, while also attempting to portray itself as environmentally friendly.
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
It's simple: being seen as ethical leads to increased profits. According to a McKinsey survey, Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2010) are more willing to spend money on ethical organisations and brands. Another study, the Nielson's Global Corporate Sustainability Report, indicated that 66% of customers would pay more for a product if it came from a sustainable brand, with millennials accounting for 73% of the total. As a result, businesses have a financial incentive to be more socially conscious, or at least appear to be socially conscious.
Another reason corporations participate in greenwashing is significantly less nefarious: they simply aren't aware that they are doing it. Many businesses just lack the knowledge to determine what is actually ecologically beneficial and what is not. In Australia, a corporation converted to "biodegradable" plastic, which doesn't entirely dissolve but does break down into tiny pieces until it's treated in a digester specifically built to provide biodegradation conditions. The company actually required a compostable bag, which is a whole different product. The country's consumer affairs commission actually fined them and ordered them to stop selling the goods since it was absolutely false. This corporation most certainly intended to be environmentally friendly, but was caught off guard due to a lack of knowledge into what constituted sustainable materials. This is why it's critical for businesses to conduct thorough research into how to be more sustainable and apply what they learn to all aspects of their operations, not just what customers see.
What Are Some Greenwashing Examples?
Unfortunately, there are many examples of organisations engaging in greenwashing. Volkswagen, for example, admitted to cheating emissions tests by installing a "defect" device, software that could detect when a car was undergoing an emissions test and adjust its performance to lower emissions. All of this happened while it was promoting its vehicles' low-emissions and environmentally friendly attributes in marketing campaigns. In reality, these engines were producing nitrogen oxide pollution at up to 40 times the legal limit. Another example is BP, which changed its brand to Beyond Petroleum and installed solar panels on its gas pumps before being chastised for their green misdirection.
Nestlé announced in 2018 that it had "ambitions" to make all of its packaging 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. Environmentalists, on the other hand, were quick to point out that the firm had not provided defined targets, a schedule to support its goals, or further measures to help people recycle more easily. Greenpeace reacted with a scathing statement, saying, "Nestlé's announcement on plastic packaging comprises more of the same greenwashing baby steps to address a situation it helped create." It won't make a significant difference in terms of reducing single-use plastics, and it sets an exceedingly low bar as the world's largest food and beverage corporation." For the third year in a row, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo were named the world's top plastic polluters in 2020.
Finally, in 2017, Walmart decided to pay $1 million to settle charges that it sold plastics that were falsely advertised as being environmentally friendly. In the United States, environmental officials have determined that promises like "compostable" or "biodegradable" are misleading without disclaimers on how rapidly the product will biodegrade in landfill.
In the previous 16 years, half of the world's throwaway plastic has been generated, and 91% of the plastic produced is not recycled. This is why companies claiming to make "reusable plastic" are so dangerous – we need to produce less of it. It's all well and good to make recyclable plastic, but the numbers above illustrate that this is pointless if the plastic still ends up in a landfill. Many forms of plastic are difficult to recycle, either because countries lack the requisite machinery or because people just lack the time or motivation to do so.
Fortunately, several governments are beginning to push down on greenwashing marketing. Fast fashion brand H&M was under investigation by Norway's Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) last year for their ostensibly ethical 'Conscious' line. H&M and other fast fashion shops are known for taking use of the vagueness of green terminology in order to appear more ecologically responsible while selling more items. This is a concern because fast fashion is one of the most polluting industries on the planet, with over £140 million worth of clothing ending up in landfills in the United Kingdom every year.
How Can You Detect and Avoid Greenwashing?
Be wary of "fluffy language," which refers to words or phrases that have no clear meaning (for example, "eco-friendly," "produced sustainably," and so on).
Company declarations that it is marginally greener than the rival, even if the competition is fairly bad (e.g., BP installing solar panels on its gas stations and claiming to be "working to be more sustainable").
Using jargon or facts that could only be checked or understood by a scientist.
Apart from keeping an eye out for companies who engage in this behaviour, there are several internet tools and search engines, such as Project Cece and Ethical Made Easy, that may assist you in identifying sustainable brands and avoiding those that are simply pretending to be sustainable.
The sustainable landscape now is not the same as it was in Jay Westerveld's time in the 1980s; we now have the resources to investigate the brands in which we invest our time and money. As customers, we hold enormous power; we shape the environment in which businesses function, so where our money goes, so does their focus. We must ensure that this focus is on long-term sustainability. Businesses can no longer get away with greenwashing; as the climate catastrophe worsens, we can no longer afford to waste time transitioning to more environmentally friendly practises.
Some examples of sustainable brands: Tony’s Chocolonely, Urban Remedy, Amazon, Apple, Stella McCartney, Manu Atelier, Swarovski, Veja, Pangaia, JW Anderson, Toms, Herbivore, Tata Harper, Youth to the People, Ren Clean Skincare, Hourglass Cosmetics, Rare Beauty, Caudalie.
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