Greenwashing is a term that gets thrown around a lot in the media at the moment, but it is a term that leaves many confused. So what is it, and why is it an issue?
Greenwashing is when a company gives a false impression or provides misleading information about how their products or actions are more environmentally sound. In essence, this means lying about how environmentally friendly they are to convince the public to use their services. Surveys show that over two-thirds of the public would be more likely to use a company if they thought they were environmentally friendly, which in turn puts a lot of pressure on companies to look their best. There is, however, a line between good PR and greenwashing, wherein greenwashing claims are untrue and illegal under advertising laws.
Greenwashing is when a company gives a false impression or provides misleading information about how their products or actions are more environmentally sound. In essence, this means lying about how environmentally friendly they are to convince the public to use their services.
However, it is not always very clear which is which; let’s look at some examples. Say a company stops using plastic wrapping on a product and instead switches to paper. Technically, they are now more environmentally friendly and can claim it in their advertising. However, if they switched to paper to save money and never thought about the environment until afterward, then this is still technically greenwashing. In this case, though, proving the order of decision-making would be impossible.
Greenwashing With Labels & Certifications
You may also see companies show off various environmental certifications without explaining what they are or what the criteria were. This type of greenwashing is far more common as it relies on the consumer researching each certification and knowing what it means. This type of additional effort on the consumer end is unlikely to happen aside from a few outliers. Promises of “eco-friendly” or “bee-friendly” look attractive on the label, so people will often give them the benefit of the doubt. Brands may also use pictures of trees, animals, and greenery on the label to make people think it is environmentally friendly, while often contributing to environmental issues like greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation (to name a few). Another very common form of greenwashing is to say “made with recycled materials.” Companies are allowed to make a product with 95% new material and 5% only recycled, yet still, make this claim. Consumers are then lead to believe that the entire product is made of recycled materials, which clearly is misleading. Again though, it is very difficult to prove, which is why greenwashing is so prevalent.
Greenwashing In The News
Recently several stories have broken where companies were tried and prosecuted for greenwashing, one of the more notable examples being the car manufacturer Volkswagen. The company claimed that their cars used less fuel and were, therefore, better for the environment than competitors. In reality, their cars were rigged with technology that lowered fuel use during testing, only to increase it again afterward. Not only did they go up, they went up to 40x the legal limit in the US, and so not only were they lying to mislead, but they were also lying to break the law. They were fined $15 billion for this, and their reputation may never fully recover.
These types of occurrences are not a new concept. Chevron ran a series of adverts in the 1980s showing their employees working with animals in forestry and rescuing sea turtles as a way to deflect attention from their huge emissions and devastating oil spills. Chevron was the first global company to take such a step, and its reputation improved as a result of this deception. Even 30 years later, environmental and media classes still refer to Chevron as the pioneer of greenwashing lies.
Greenwashing In The Market Today
Nowadays, greenwashing is more prevalent than ever, with many fast fashion brands like Asos, Zara, and H&M also releasing “environmentally friendly” lines. While this label is accurate in some cases, the issue is that profits from these lines make up less than 1% of sales and are designed to attract customers to buy other items that are more damaging to the environment to produce and more profitable. In this case, greenwashing does not only refer to the environmental deception but also covers up the issues of child labor and poor working conditions these companies take advantage of. You will also frequently see oil and gas companies recommending actions for the general public to take to lower their carbon impact as a way of deflecting focus from their own pollution. Since 1965 there have been 20 oil and gas companies who have collectively been responsible for 35% of all carbon emissions. Deflecting focus onto the public is a common way to hide their devastating record and pass responsibility onto the consumer without dealing with the repercussions themselves.
It is often difficult to know what is greenwashing and what is genuine change. Fossil fuel companies have started shifting their attention and resources towards renewables. This has the potential to be problematic, as renewables will be an incredibly small fraction of their earnings compared to the earnings from fossil fuels. These companies will likely make adverts and social media posts about their positive impact, with no regard to the damage already done to the environment. If this trend continues, though, and they do genuinely change, then this can and should be celebrated as a good thing. As individual consumers and investors become increasingly aware of these issues, many are looking for ethical or “Fossil fuel-free” investments. This is great, but a fossil fuel company with a 1% stake in renewables actually qualifies as “Fossil fuel-free,” as they can argue the money you give them will only go on their renewables. However, on an investment account, they show up under the “Technology” heading and not under Energy which is very misleading as you are likely funding fossil fuels in reality.
Herein lies the biggest problem with greenwashing. A lack of trust from the public means that people are unsure which companies are genuinely ethical and which ones are lying. Many will simply despair and say “they are all lying,” choosing to do nothing rather than sort through which companies have the consumers’ true interest at heart. As environmentally-friendly companies tend to be smaller than the corporate greenwashing giants, they are harder hit by the lack of consumer interest. By taking this view, it is the polluting companies that come out best, which is absolutely what they intended by greenwashing. They get to continue as normal without taking action that is essential to tackle the climate crisis.
As consumers, we need to look into what we are buying, who we are supporting, and do our part by sharing good and bad examples with other like-minded individuals. We live in a world where everyone is connected through the internet and social media, and we have the power to highlight good companies and name and shame bad ones. Challenging companies by voicing our concerns is a foolproof way to catalyze positive change and ensure which brands have our own and our planet’s interests at heart.
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