Greenwashing - It Ain't Easy Being Green

KF - Writer

It’s been around for a few decades in practice, written off as big companies telling lies to make themselves look greener. Research and widespread recognition of this social phenomenon is only just beginning to take off. For years it’s been put under the umbrella term of corporate dishonesty, however, more and more people are beginning to recognize that more subtle, devious tactics are being employed and on such a large scale that this deserves its own classification. It’s not just lies when a company gives itself false credit for its environmental efforts anymore… it’s ‘greenwashing’.

Furlow (2010) defines greenwashing as “the dissemination of false or incomplete information by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image”. That’s right, as companies come running out of the woodworking screaming about how eco-friendly they have all suddenly become, it turns out they’re not all telling the truth. This phenomenon really does what it says on the tin, washing over the truth with a nice green hue. According to Delmas and Burbano (2011) more than 75% of S&P 500 companies had a dedicated page on their website discussing their environmental and social policies and performance. That was back in 2009, so the figure is undoubtedly higher in today’s green conscious market. However it’s highly unlikely that this many companies are all operating under such a responsible ethos.  To fit the category of greenwashing, these companies are either lying about their positive environmental social or operating policies or making eco claims about their specific product.

In the late 1990s, BP underwent a major rebranding campaign in order to change its environmental image. Apparently tar covered seagulls aren't great for business. They put a lot of green signs up and eventually have invested in some renewable technology (decades later) but pretty much just chow down on fossil fuels for the most part. Historically, it has been the companies with the worst environmental impact who make the loudest claims about their eco-friendly principles. This also makes them the biggest hypocrites when they burn down forests and crack open the ocean floor, whilst patting themselves on the back for their ‘cycle to work’ scheme.

A more recent example of this is the Volkswagen emissions scandal, where the car manufacturer was found to have tampered with emissions testing to make it seem as though their cars complied with regulation. Although merely complying with regulations doesn’t seem like much of an environmental brag, if you look at any car manufacturers’ website you will find the emissions from every given car. Some will simply insert this into the information pages for a few avid readers to discover, while others display this figure visibly on the first page. This makes it seem as though it is an impressively low figure and therefore so very eco, all the while knowing full well that the average consumer has no frame of reference for what qualifies as low emissions. Praying on consumer ignorance is how greenwashing companies operate. This is why Terra Choice came up with ‘7 Sins of Greenwashing’ to help everyday consumers spot greenwashing.

1- A Hidden Trade-Off
A piece of jewellery may claim to be ethically sourced because it doesn’t use child labour, however it was still mined out of the ground using heavy drilling equipment. Likewise, an electric car claims to be zero emissions, and while that’s true while you’re driving it, when you plug it into the National Grid to charge up you’re still getting that electricity from coal power plants and other fossil fuel sources.

2- No Proof
These can be very generic or very specific claims about the environmental benefits of a product. Throwing around facts and figures works because when has anyone ever looked into the testing methodology of their favourite product? It’s easy to say 9/10 consumers prefer our ethically sourced lemons when you only asked 10 people and 7 of them work for your lemon marketing team.

3- Vagueness
Just calling something eco-friendly is very misleading because that implies there is some sort of benefit to the environment from the existence of that product. Simply not doing harm doesn’t constitute being eco-friendly, there should be a net benefit. Saying ‘green range’ of products and painting your same old normal products green and hiking up the price leads people to believe there was something more to it than literally being painted green- when sometimes that really is all they mean.

4- False Labels
There’s a Mitchell and Webb sketch about a shifty salesman who sells ludicrously dangerous experiences (like cage swimming with sharks when the shark is in the cage or rapid swimming with a pool floaty) to people successfully because he has printed off his own certificate which assures them that it will all be fine. In the real world, it can actually be legal for genuine companies to make up their own certificates awarding themselves various green attributes. And the Volkswagen Award for Best Emissions Ever goes to…

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5- Irrelevance
It is entirely irrelevant when a product claims to be ‘all natural’. Fossil fuels, arsenic and cyanide are natural and I still wouldn’t put them on my toast. Look out for products claiming to be ‘DDT’, ‘microbead’ and ‘CFC’ free as these substances have all been illegal for varying lengths of time, it’s the equivalent of chocolate bars claiming to be cocaine free because 100 years ago we thought it was healthy. It’s the participation trophy of greenwashing. Well done for not literally breaking the law.

6- The Lesser of Two Evils
Huge ranges of cardboard and paper products have flooded the eco-market since plastic became the enemy. Now it’s hard to know if we should chop down all the forests for paper or should we keep killing turtles with our aptly named Bags for Life (which I’m sorry to say haven’t cured the plastic crisis).

7- Sin of Fibbing
The Donald Trump approach. Just wing it, who knows the truth anyway?

So how is it that companies get away with this bold-faced lying… making things up… stretching the truth and awarding themselves empty accolades? Well at the moment it’s due to our previously mentioned consumer ignorance, people simply don’t follow up the claims companies make. There’s also a lack of regulation around the issue and where companies advertise internationally it’s also unclear whose jurisdiction they fall under or just how they can be punished by who. There are some organisations such as Fair Trade which require companies to meet certain standards of sustainability and ethical practices in order to bear their logo, however it can be hard to tell which smaller copies of this are genuine and which are organisations made up from the companies awarding sustainability status to themselves. There needs to be a greater focus on policing those who have made false claims and pressing corporations into making genuine positive change. It shouldn’t be enough to slap a green sticker on a box and say they met the bare minimum standard to be let in the club, there should be clear evidence of net benefit to the environment from all big corporations. They take focus away from genuinely eco-friendly products and companies who employ socially and environmentally responsible practices, and too often the culprits cause more damage than good.


Mitchell and Webb-

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash


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