As people become more and more accustomed to the climate crisis, many businesses want to show us consumers that they are taking action to help the climate and the environment. Claims about businesses or products being “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” have skyrocketed, with many companies small and large claiming they’re doing their part for the planet.
But as you may suspect, this isn’t always true. Unfortunately, for a lot of companies, these claims aren’t always truthful and can actually be used to hide the environmental impacts of a company. Welcome to the world of greenwashing.
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When a company does things that are harmful to the environment but says they actually care about climate change, this is called greenwashing. Greenwashing is basically a form of marketing in which a company tries to give itself an eco-friendly spin that isn’t truthful. Whether a company that purports to be environmentally conscious actually isn’t making any notable sustainability efforts or whether it claims its products are more eco-friendly than they actually are, it’s all greenwashing.
Greenwashing is much more common than we think. An analysis of 500 websites last year found that 40% of environmentally friendly claims were misleading customers — and this is for companies that claim to be serious and reliable.
The term ‘greenwashing’ was created by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an essay on multiculturalism. Westerveld was writing about his experience at a resort in Fiji, when he saw a note in his hotel room asking customers to pick up their towels — a move that had limited impact on the environment but allowed the hotel to lower its laundry costs.
“It said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage,” Westerveld told the Guardian at the time. “They finished by saying something like, ‘Help us to help our environment.’ But I don’t think they cared all that much about the coral reefs. They were in the middle of expanding.”
By the early 1990s, as consumers became more aware of sustainability concerns, the term grew more popular. Greenwashing was mostly used to describe unethical practices used by companies to label themselves as green. Then, in 1999, it was included in the Oxford English Dictionary, giving further recognition to the term.
The types of greenwashing
The advertising consultancy TerraChoice Marketing created in 2007 a list of what they called “the seven signs of greenwashing” or just types of misleading environmental claims from businesses. It starts with “hidden trade-off,” which is when a company says its product is green based on narrow attributes without considering other factors.
For example, paper may seem better than plastic as it’s biodegradable and usually comes from sustainably harvested forests. However, there could be other factors to consider, such as greenhouse gas emissions and the use of chemicals for bleaching. Studies have suggested four million hectares of forest are being cleared for paper, so whether paper is truly more eco-friendly than plastic is not guaranteed.
Another sign is “no proof,” meaning when a company claims something that can’t be easily verified by reliable third-party certifications. “Vagueness” is another one, made to mislead people by using broad or poor definitions. For example, a package is labelled as “recyclable” without saying which parts of the packaging are actually recyclable.
Another type is “worshipping false labels,” when a company gives the impression of having the endorsement of a third-party despite it being worthless or a lie. The list also includes “irrelevance,” meaning claims that are unimportant or unhelpful for customers, and “lesser of the two evils,” used to distract customers from the greater environmental impact of a product as a whole.
American politician Ed Gillespie also came up with his own types of greenwashing. “Suggestive pictures” refers to using images that imply there’s a positive environmental impact that actually doesn’t exist and “gobbledygook” is when a brand uses jargon to confuse consumers, such as “locally grown” food products that still affect the environment.
Some of the many examples of greenwashing
Two-thirds of the CEOs of US-based companies questioned their companies’ sustainability initiatives, according to an anonymous survey done for Google Cloud. In fact, most of the biggest global companies have been accused of greenwashing at some point, including Unilever, Amazon, Ikea, Nestle, Starbucks, Coca Cola, among many others.
Back in 2018, Nestle claimed all its packaging would be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. However, environmental organizations questioned why the company didn’t explain how it would do this. Greenpeace said in a statement back then that Nestle’s pledge “included more of the same greenwashing baby steps” to tackle the environmental crisis.
Coca-Cola has ranked as the world’s number one plastic polluter for two years in a row, according to research done by the Break Free From Plastic campaign. In 2020, the company was criticized for saying it wouldn’t abandon plastic bottles as they weren’t popular with customers. Despite this, Coca-Cola has said it’s making progress in its plastic waste.
Starbucks was also questioned for greenwashing when it released a “straw-less lid” in 2018. The lid actually had more plastic than the old lid and straw combination. The company didn’t dispute this and said the lid was made from polypropylene, a type of plastic that Starbucks said it could be recycled. However, most of the plastic worldwide isn’t recycled.
Fast fashion brands have also been caught greenwashing over the years. For example, H&M launched a line of “green” clothing named “conscious” back in 2019. The company said it used “organic” cotton and recycled polyester. However, the company was criticized by the Norwegian Customer Authority for offering “misleading” information to its customers.
And who could forget fossil fuel companies and carmakers. An example is when Volkswagen admitted to cheating on emission tests by fitting vehicles with a special device. The software could detect when it was undergoing an emission test and altered the performance. This happened while the company highlighted the “low-emissions” of its vehicles.
Environmental group ClientEarth filed a complaint against BP for misleading the public with advertisements that focused BP’s “low-carbon energy products,” when actually over 95% of its annual spending is on oil and gas. ExxonMobil was also questioned for ads that suggested that its experimental algae biofuels could one day reduce transport emissions.
What do we do then?
As consumers, we have become much more critical when a company makes a claim, and in many cases, we can tell when it’s actually greenwashing. Strong social accountability is very important, as well as having a regulatory authority keeping control of companies alongside a third party, such as civil society organizations and NGOs.
One of the main ways to spot whether something is actually green is to look out for certifications. Here are some: B Corp, when a business is legally required to do beneficial things for the environment, Carbon Trust, when they meet a certain standard of emissions reduction, and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), meaning responsibly wood sources.
Still, it’s always good to be careful, as sometimes companies use labels that are uncertified to make their products more environmentally friendly than they are. In doubt, you can do some research about the company and the label they are using. There’s a growing community of people out there looking out for greenwashing, so companies better watch out.