Greenwashing - The Significance and the Necessity to Understand
The signs of climate change - hurricanes, heat waves, flooding, droughts - extreme weather are being spotted everywhere and its impacts are seen across the globe. These events have become prevalent in the news, which increased people's awareness of our impact on the environment. There is a growing demand from citizens for their governments and multinational corporations to prevent further environmental degradation. Additionally, people's willingness to adjust their lifestyle and consumption has increased, and more and more consumers are looking for goods with a low environmental impact. Thus, eco-friendly, green, locally-sourced, recycled, and organic, bioproducts are often preferred to alternatives.
This change in consumers' behavior and preferences, consequently, has put consumer goods companies and enterprises of all sizes under ever-increasing pressure to become more environmentally friendly. In many countries, this pressure has taken a more official shape in the form of regulations companies have to comply with and taxes they must pay. While this innovation could have a positive impact, there are still many companies encountering difficulties shifting their focus from profit-generating objectives to collective goals for a better future for humanity. Regardless of their innate desire or ethics, every business feels the urge to embrace green practices, for instance, through green marketing and corporate social responsibility. This is simply what is "in" now.
Image 1.Sandeep Joshi (n.d.)
This is when "greenwashing" started to emerge. The term greenwashing was coined for the first time in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an environmental activist, in an essay criticizing the irony of the 'save the towel' movement in hotels at the time. He noticed the vast amount of waste he had come across throughout the hotel, where there were no visible signs of efforts being made to become more sustainable. He said that instead, the hotel was simply trying to reduce costs by not having to wash towels frequently but trying to market it as being eco-friendly (Robinson, 2022).
In the systematic review of Concepts and forms of greenwashing, Netto describes greenwashing as a two-way behavior of companies; on one hand, presenting an image or products as sustainable, green, and eco-friendly - while they may not be exactly so - and on the other hand, withholding information from the public about a company's practices that cause damages to the environment. In other words, companies are 'greenwashing' when they selectively disclose information about businesses' impact on the environment (Neto, 2020).
Image 2. Rawpixel.com (n.a.) Environment responsible green global ecology.
This selective disclosure can be performed at an organizational level, for instance, by misrepresenting the practices of the company as environmentally friendly; also at a product or service level, by claiming certain products to have environmental benefits. In their article, The drivers of greenwashing, Delmas and Burbano give the following examples. The "Ecomagination" campaign from General Electric (GE) which advertised the organization’s environmental practices while at the same time lobbying to fight the clean air requirements from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an example of greenwashing at an organizational level. For the product/service level, the eco-labeled LG's Energy Star refrigerators, which are later discovered were not energy efficient enough to be certified, could be a reference (Delmas, 2011).
Twelve years ago, the environmental marketing firm, TerraChoice, created a classification called "the seven sins of greenwashing" to help the consumer evaluate and avoid the green illusions the business is trying hard to sell.
The sin of hidden trade-off - the products' 'green' claim that is based on a limited set of attributes while potentially critical environmental issues related to it are disguised. The case with paper sourced from sustainably harvested forests is an example. In the process of making paper, gas emissions or harmful chemicals are used and those aspects are being ignored.
The sin of no proof - a claim that cannot be proven by easily attainable information or by unbiased third-party testimony. An example of this is a product that claims to be made of recycled material without providing justifiable data about it.
The sin of vagueness - a claim that is lacking specifics that the consumers could misinterpret. For example, a shampoo stating it is 99 % 'natural.' But 'natural' does not necessarily mean 'green,' as most heavy-dangerous metals can also occur in nature. The terms 'sustainable,' 'bio,' 'green,' 'eco-friendly,' and 'non-toxic' are also considered vague without specific information added to back them up.
Image 3. Yurasits. (2019). 'Compostable' plastic cups found during a recent beach cleanup in New York.
The sin of worshiping false labels - when a green certification is added to the packaging for giving the consumers the impression that the product has passed through a real green screening process.
The sin of irrelevance - when a company draws attention to irrelevant information for the consumers to choose a more sustainable product. The most common example is the claim of 'CFC-free' products, even though it is prohibited under the Montreal Protocol.
The sin of lesser of two evils - a claim that a brand, commodity, or industry is greener than others in the same category, in order to excuse ecocide, deforestation, human rights, and animal rights abuses. For example, the palm oil industry claims that palm oil uses less land than other oil crops. Therefore, even though palm oil causes indigenous land grabbing, deforestation, fires, species extinction, and causing air and water pollution – it’s still better than other oils (Posts, 2022).
The sin of fibbing - basically a false environmental claim. A relevant example is Walmart, which was selling plastic products with the label 'eco-friendly' (Netto, 2020).
Image 4. The Organic Crave Company. (2022) Delicious summer snacks from The Organic Crave Company.
Clearly, greenwashing uses a variety of techniques that make it difficult for the general public to detect. Here are some general tips to follow when trying to avoid spending money on products or services from businesses that engage in greenwashing.
Beware of the use of the color green and images picturing nature (leaves, waves, animals, etc.,), as these are used as subliminal messages that intend to create the perception of eco-friendly products regardless of contents or packaging materials. Purchasing items just because of these features is not contributing to a positive change, as they are not stimulating or supporting environmentally conscious businesses.
Read the labels. Having information about the content of the goods helps, and lack of details or ingredient lists is a definite red flag for the products.
Learn which biggest sectors contribute to global emissions. Being informed will aid individuals in choosing responsible businesses that utilize alternative methods which do not pollute the air, water, and earth, and do not deplete natural resources. The data by the United States Environmental Protection and Agency provides extensive information about the largest greenhouse gas emitting sectors.
Gain familiarity with companies notorious for using greenwashing in the past is another way to be mindful of this practice. Companies like British Petroleum, whose name has been changed to Beyond Petroleum but whose profits and main investments continue to flow into oil and gas production; or Coca-Cola, which has been sued for falsely advertising itself as eco-friendly while remaining the world's number one plastic polluter, to name two (Robinson, 2022).
As The Economist's special report (November 2022) states, "global average temperatures are currently 1.0-1.3°C above the pre-industrial era. According to Britain’s Met Office and the World Meteorological Organization, there is a 48% chance that global average temperatures will be 1.5°C higher than pre-industrial in at least one of the next five years." However, there are still companies that want to develop more fossil fuel sites and refineries and others that just want to keep the current status quo. It is imperative for individuals, organizations, and government agencies to be aware of businesses that greenwash their marketing in order to create a false green image of themselves. This misleading marketing robs humanity of the chance to alter the destructive path it is on right now.
Making corporations responsible for their actions and methods of production and distribution, and encouraging corporations to choose the green path, will benefit all of humanity. In order to increase environmentally responsible practices among for-profit firms, organizations, activists, NGOs, and the media need to demand transparency from firms and apply pressure on them. In a recent study about what characteristics of companies influence greenwashing, it was found that companies in sectors that are more environmentally conscious employ greenwashing tactics less frequently than their counterparts in other sectors. Similarly, companies that publish sustainability reports about their activities greenwash less than those that do not practice it (Ruiz-Blanco, 2022). Therefore, transparency and accountability are the key factors in curtailing greenwashing. Meanwhile, consumers need to remember that greenwashing plays into their desire to live a greener life, and they should not blindly trust every claim for environmentally sustainable products and practices.
It has to be pointed out that even though some businesses rely heavily on greenwashing to be recognized, there are also many companies that are striving toward sustainable practices. Finally, it is up to the consumers to do their due diligence, learn about them, and support their efforts to assure economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
All ecolabels in United Kingdom | Ecolabel Index. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://www.ecolabelindex.com/ecolabels/?st=country,gb
Delmas, M. A., & Burbano, V. C. (2011). The Drivers of Greenwashing. California Management Review, 54(1), 64–87. https://doi.org/10.1525/cmr.2011.54.1.64
Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data. (2022, February 25). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/global-greenhouse-gas-emissions-data
Green Business Bureau. (2022, August 16). The Seven Sins of Greenwashing. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://greenbusinessbureau.com/green-practices/the-seven-sins-of-greenwashing/
Netto, D. S. F. V. (2020, February 11). Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review - Environmental Sciences Europe. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-020-0300-3
Our latest coverage of climate change. (2022, November 3). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/climate-change?utm_medium=cpc.adword.pd
Posts, V. M. (2022, July 1). Greenwashing Tactic #6: The Lesser of Two Evils. Retrieved November 2, 2022, from https://palmoildetectives.com/2021/10/22/greenwashing-tactic-6-the-lesser-of-two-evils/
Robinson, D. (2022, August 8). What is Greenwashing and How to Avoid It. Earth.Org. https://earth.org/what-is-greenwashing/
Ruiz-Blanco, S., Romero, S. & Fernandez-Feijoo, B. Green, blue or black, but washing–What company characteristics determine greenwashing?. Environ Dev Sustain24, 4024–4045 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-021-01602-x
The world is going to miss the totemic 1.5°C climate target. (2022, November 3). The Economist. https://www.economist.com/interactive/briefing/2022/11/05/the-world-is-going-to-miss-the-totemic-1-5c-climate-target
Sandeep Joshi. (n.d.). n.a. https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/schools/greenwashing-deception-and-vague-promises-that-do-not-help-the-environment-329946
rawpixel.com. (n.d.). Environment responsible green global ecology [Photograph]. https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/environment-responsible-green-global-ecology_16442166.htm
Yurasits. (2019). “Compostable” plastic cups found during a recent beach cleanup in New York. [Photograph]. https://unsplash.com/photos/YFiHaY2DVyE
The Organic Crave Company. (2022). Delicious summer snacks from The Organic Crave Company [Photograph]. https://unsplash.com/photos/KXL9v2bD8Vs