Deconstructing Greenwashing: What is it and Why it Needs to Stop
It's no understatement that our planet is in trouble. The climate crisis has been discussed for decades, and now more than ever is the time for collective action. But there’s a deceitful marketing practice known as ‘greenwashing’ that impairs our abilities to make environmentally conscious consumer choices.
As the world increasingly embraces the pursuit of greener practices, it's no surprise that companies are jumping on the bandwagon. With the rise of the green consumer and their earth-minded sentiments, brands have no choice but to respond to these changing consumer demands by acting more environmentally friendly or creating green products. But widely used labels like eco friendly, natural, organic, and sustainable can be confusing and misleading to consumers.
That’s why it's essential for consumers to be aware of greenwashing and to not always believe the 'green' efforts and environmental claims made by corporations.
What is Corporate Greenwashing?
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in the mid-80s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who was on holiday in Hawaii and was confused by a local hotel’s “save the towel” movement that encouraged guests to reuse their towels to protect the local reefs; only to find out the beach resort was in the middle of expanding into those very waters.
In essence, greenwashing is a dirty business practice designed to make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is or claiming that their products are environmentally friendly when often they are not.
Companies have engaged in greenwashing for decades - and most cases of greenwashing have made headlines that ruined brand reputations and company image. A classic greenwashing scandal is that of the German car giant, Volkswagen. Dubbed as the ‘Diesel Dupe’ case, VW admitted to installing a ‘defeat device’ in their diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, thus cheating on emissions tests. Recognising laboratory conditions, the cars switched to safety mode in which the engine ran below average performance. In truth however, these were emitting 40 times the allowed nitrogen oxide pollutant levels in the US.
An example of greenwashing today would be fast-fashion leader H&M’s supposedly ‘green’ clothing line titled ‘Conscious’, which uses either ‘organic’ cotton or recycled polyester. Claiming to produce sustainable fashion pieces is a blatant misrepresentation of the overall brand as most materials H&M uses aren’t eco-friendly, and the brand continues to operate under an unsustainable, fast-fashion business model.
The Problems with Greenwashing: Environmental Consequences
How can greenwashing, a deceitful marketing practice, harm the environment? As more and more people become environmentally aware and prefer to purchase sustainable products, making ‘green’ or ‘eco friendly’ claims serves as a powerful marketing technique. Greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against substantial environmental issues such as global warming, climate change, ocean plastic pollution, air pollution and global species extinction.
When brands engage in greenwashing, they misrepresent the ecological impact of their brand. If consumers believe such misleading environmental claims and fraudulent practices, they may choose to support and purchase that brand; thus unintentionally non-sustainable business.
One of the dangers in greenwashing is that it can undermine people’s attempts to change their lives in ways that help prevent further environmental issues. As a result, ecological problems stay the same or worsen. It also creates a dangerous misconception about what it means to go green as many consumers don’t understand themselves what is truly environmentally beneficial. Not only does a culture of greenwashing play a role in misdirecting well-intentioned customers down the wrong path, it also happens to disrupt and delay ecological initiatives such as sustainable design, zero waste, or circular economy advancements.
As consumers we need to take off our rose-tinted glasses to see through these greenwashing tactics, and call out nonsense where it's due.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Futerra's 2015 Selling Sustainability Report outlines 10 basic brand marketing tactics to avoid, so here are the key things to look out for to spot greenwashing in action:
- Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning e.g eco friendly
- Green products vs dirty company: efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
- Suggestive pictures: Images that indicate a (unjustified) green impression e.g flowers blooming from exhaust pipes
- Irrelevant claims: Placing attention on one tiny green attribute to distract people from everything else that is un-green
- ‘Best-in-class’ brags: Declaring themselves as slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible
- Just not credible: the "greening" of a dangerous product to make it seem safe ("eco-friendly" cigarettes, anyone?)
- Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Imaginary friends: A label that looks like a third-party endorsement - except it's made up
- No proof: It could be true, but where's the evidence?
- Out-and-out lies: Totally fabricated claims or data
So, what can we do?
While some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of expertise on what sustainability truly is, it is intentionally carried out through excessive marketing and PR efforts.
The good news is that greenwashing is becoming less common as both small and large businesses alike recognise the harmful consequences of exaggerating their environmental commitment. A culture of scepticism can encourage companies to take quantifiable measures to decrease their ecological footprint; where only truly green businesses that can prove their claims and legitimately partake in sustainable behaviour will survive.
Afterall, we are progressing towards a critical time where organisations and individuals are adopting sustainable design and zero waste practices, where entire countries and communities around the world are banning plastic use left, right, and centre.
While we should continue to demand transparency from businesses and pressure them to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable and circular design solutions, in the meantime, let's start with ourselves first. We can all be change agents by altering our own habits and behaviours to support the more sustainable options. There are various ways to shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle, for instance, going plastic-free is a fantastic step to reduce your own ecological footprint.
To learn more, Australia has this entire guide on how to avoid greenwashing.