Greenwashing: detrimental to sustainability

January 6, 2022

Image by Matryx from Pixabay

Olivia Opara reports on the damaging effects of greenwashing and highlights warning signs to watch out for

In light of the recent COP26, the biggest global climate change conference and with the rise of climate activism and businesses being called out; ‘Greenwashing’ has been further brought to our attention.

However, not many know what it means, what it looks like and what effect it has.

A brief history of greenwashing
In a 1986 essay, in response to the hotel industry’s ‘save the towel’ movement, New York environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term ‘greenwashing’. Westerveld exposed the irony that the real motive for not having to wash towels was to save money rather than energy.

However, greenwashing did not start in the 1980s. Back in the 1960s  corporate greenwashing pioneer, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation spun an advertisement campaign claiming that its nuclear power plants were safe and clean, ignoring the environmental hazards of nuclear waste.

So what is greenwashing?
Greenwashing, also known as ‘green sheen’ is a marketing tool aiming to present a company or organisation as environmentally friendly. It often involves deceptive and deceitful advertising. The Business News Daily reports how greenwashing’s sole intention is to “mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands”. Typically, these spins would use environmental buzz words such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’.

In most cases the companies, who pour millions into their greenwashing campaigns, tend to disregard how that money could go towards implementing environmental changes to their operations. At times they even participate in environmental initiatives like offsetting, planting trees or making donations to charities thinking this gives them permission to continue with their polluting practices.

Coca-Cola, the American multinational came under fire in June 2021 for advertising a PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottle, which is not bio-degradable, for its Sprite soft drink brand as a solution to Kenya’s plastic crisis.

[authquote text=”Greenpeace Africa’s Senior Political Advisor, Fredrick Njehu said in response ‘Coca-Cola’s latest campaign is nothing short of greenwashing'”]

Coca-Cola was faced with a lawsuit from environmental organisation Earth Island Institute when the company was found to have falsely advertised itself as eco-friendly and sustainable. Read more about this here. However, Coca-Cola is still responsible for producing 100 billion plastic bottles per year. Coca-Cola emerged as the #1 Top Global Polluter for the third consecutive year in the Brand Audit 2020 report.

How to spot greenwashing
As deceptive as it is, greenwashing can be detected by a consumer.

  • Look out for environmental buzzwords
    Terms or phrases like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ are often used vaguely, with an empty and hollow reflection of exactly what the company is doing. If you see these words all over packaging or on an advertisement, for example, and you are still left wondering what exactly is environmental about the product or service, then it may be that greenwashing is at play.
  • Natural imagery
    This can go hand in hand with environmental buzzwords. Images or symbols of nature are generally used to convince you that the product or service has the environment at its heart. From images of leaves, to cute farm animals, to the planet are deliberately used to present environmentalism without any eco credentials. Again, this is just another gimmick mimicking the designs of approved eco-labels. If you want to check if a label is approved in the UK, click here.
  • Where is the proof?
    With many companies claiming to be ‘eco-friendly’ and having an ‘environmental mission’, they tend not to provide facts and figures of exactly what they are doing, how they are doing it and what their impact is. If you can’t easily find information on how a business is progressing with its climate mission then it’s quite possible that they’re greenwashing. Always look for transparent proof.
  • Parent-child companies
    A tactic that some organisations love to use is to set up subsidiary companies purely dedicated to environmental causes while the parent company continues to cause damage. Just like how corporates pour billions into initiatives, some try to hide behind a company that they still profit from. Innocent Smoothies who ‘champion sustainable farming and create a truly circular economy for their packaging’ have been owned by the world’s biggest polluter, Coca-Cola since 2013. As you can see the good being done by Innocent Smoothies is being overshadowed by the harm caused by its parent company.
  • Confusing waste messages
    Sometimes it’s not clear how to dispose of a product as it’s only partly recyclable. Which parts? – not sure? Then this is a form of greenwashing. The package should not just include buzz-words like ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ without fully explaining how. Learn more here about how to improve your recycling habits.
  • Is it true? Is it relevant?
    If you cannot verify an environmental claim by a corporation then there is a possibility that it is greenwashing. Again, where is the proof? Similarly, question if the claim is relevant. For instance, if a company claims to be ‘CFC-free’ (Chlorofluorocarbon free) despite that seeming like a good thing, it is irrelevant because CFCs are already banned. You can read more here. A good tip would be for you to always do your research.

The consequences of greenwashing
Greenwashing is an unethical tool used within the business community to mislead consumers. It causes people to contribute to unsustainable practices under the pretence that they are doing good. This in turn prolongs the damage to the environment with polluting businesses going under the radar. However, if a business is found to be greenwashing, this can be detrimental to their reputation. Like Coca-Cola, corporations can face lawsuits with clients and customers boycotting them leading to profit loss.

If we, as consumers, can become more conscious of greenwashing and learn to spot it, then we can avoid falling into the trap of contributing to the ever-growing climate catastrophe. We can use the power of our wallets to push towards a healthier planet.

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