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Greenwashing: Why is it Detrimental?

[Image by Matryx from Pixaby]

In light of COP26 and with the rise of climate activism and businesses being called out for doing it or being told to avoid it - ‘Greenwashing’ has been more spoken about. However, not many know what it means, what it looks like and what effects 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. This essay was prompted by the irony Westerveld saw in the movement when the hotel industry is known to waste energy but not having to wash towels saves them money. However, greenwashing did not just start in the 80s. As a corporate greenwashing pioneer, threatened by the 1960’s anti-nuclear movement, the nuclear power division of the original Westinghouse Electric Corporation spun an advertisement campaign claiming that its nuclear power plants were safe and clean.

Coca-cola had previously emerged as the #1 Top Global Polluter for the third consecutive year in the Brand Audit 2020 report.

So What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing, also known as ‘green sheen’, is a marketing spin with the aim of presenting a company or organisation as environmentally friendly. It is a deceptive and deceitful advertising and PR ploy with the sole intention to “mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands” (Business News Daily). Typically, these spins would use ‘environmental buzz words’ such as: ‘eco-friendly’, ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’.

In most cases these companies, who pour in millions into their greenwashing, 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 or planting trees or donations to certain charities thinking it allows them to continue with their polluting business practices. An example of such businesses is:

Coca-cola The American multinational came under fire back in June 2021 for advertising a PET (polyethylene terephthalate), plastic bottle for its Sprite soft drink brand as a solution to Kenya’s plastic crisis. It was also faced with a lawsuit from environmental organization Earth Island Institute when the company was found to have falsely advertised itself as eco-friendly and sustainable when it is responsible for 100 billion bottles of plastic per year. Coca-cola had previously emerged as the #1 Top Global Polluter for the third consecutive year in the Brand Audit 2020 report.

“Coca cola’s latest campaign is nothing short of greenwashing” Greenpeace Africa Senior Political Advisor, Fredrick Njehu

How to Spot Greenwashing

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

  1. Look out for ‘ environmental buzz-words’ As mentioned before, terms or phrases like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘all natural’, ‘organic’, ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ and so on are ones that you should beware of. In most cases these are used vaguely, with an empty and hollow reflection of exactly what the company is actually doing. If you see these words all over a packaging or an advertisement, for example, and you are still left wondering what exactly is environmental about the product or service, then it may just be greenwashing at play.

  2. Natural Imagery This goes hand in hand with the buzz-words. Images or symbols of nature are generally used to convince you that the product or service has nature at its heart. They can also be idyllic and prescribe to an aesthetic of environmentalism. From leaves to small little farm animals to even the planet, imagery of this sought is deliberately used to present environmentalism but what is the actual mission? Again, this is just another gimmick which can also mimic the designs of approved ecolabels. If you want to check if a label is approved in the UK, click here.

  3. 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 the impact is. If you cannot find publicly available information on how a business is progressing in terms of their climate mission then it is safer to assume that they are greenwashing than to support them and later find out that they were. Always look for proof that is transparent.

  4. Parent-Child company A tactic that some organisations love to do is to set up children companies purely dedicated to environmental causes and yet the parent company continues to cause damage. Just like how coperates pour billions into ‘initiatives’, some try to hide behind a company that they still profit from. Such as how Innocent Smoothies who “champion sustainable farming and create a truly circular economy for [their] packaging” have been owned by Coca-cola since 2013, the same company who was the top biggest polluter in 2020, most of which is plastic waste. As you can see the good being done by Innocent Smoothies is being overshadowed by the harm caused by its parent company.

  5. Confusing waste messages Do you know how to actually dispose of the product? It is fully recyclable or only parts of it but you are still unsure? Then this is a form of greenwashing. The package should not just include buzz-words like ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ without actually explaining how. Learn how to better recycle in the Uk here.

  6. 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. A good tip would be for you to always do your own research.

The Consequences of Greenwashing

Immorally, greenwashing causes people to contribute to unsustainable practices under the pretense that they are doing good. This in turn damages the environment as there is more pollution and businesses can slyly continue to damage the planet. However, if a business is found to be greenwashing, this can be detrimental to its reputation. Just like in the Coca-cola example, the corporation can face lawsuits, with its clients and customers even boycotting its services which can lead to profit loss.

Greenwashing causes people to contribute to unsustainable practices under the pretense that they are doing good

Greenwashing is an unfortunate tool used within the business community to persuade consumers to continue to support their negative environmental impact. Yet, if we, as consumers, can become more conscious of greenwashing and learn to spot it, then we would not fall into the trap of contributing to the ever growing climate catastrophe and can use the power of our wallets to push towards a healthier planet.

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