The Tipping Point of Greenwashing

By‌ ‌Mike‌ ‌Ayeni‌ ‌

Sustainable‌ ‌Fashion‌ ‌Writer‌

Greenwashing, a term most of us have come across at least once before, is no less a pressing issue in our working society, today.

Greenwashing occurs when a company utilises more resources such as time and money to make themselves as well as their products or services appear more eco-friendly than they actually are.

The term greenwashing was created in 1986 by American eco-activist and researcher Jay Westerveld in a critical essay. He used it in the essay to describe a Samoan beach resort’s attempt to come across as environmentally friendly by adopting the practice of reusing towels. Westerveld was an undergraduate student then, he was staying at a guest house nearby but one day after sneaking into the resort to stealing a few clean towels he came across a note asking guests to pick up their towels.

According to Westerveld, the note claimed that oceans and reefs were a vital part of nature and reusing towels would help minimize ecological damage, however, it struck him as ironic that they didn’t bother with any other essential aspects of sustainability.

“I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs, they were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows”. 

This was in a time when most information was conveyed to customers via television, the radio, newspapers, and other print media and it wasn’t possible to confirm if certain facts were true the way we can today.

As the world continues to see a rise in the number of individuals concerned about the consumer imprint on the environment, a corresponding increase in the amount of eco-friendly or organic brands and labels in existence has also been witnessed.

The aforementioned consumers are also willing to pay more than the usual prices for sustainable alternatives to a product or good. For this reason as well as others more companies have begun to incorporate ethical and sustainable practices into their strategy. 

That sounds pretty good, right? A lot more effort is being put into preserving the environment, everywhere you look there’s an eco-friendly product and that’s great for mother nature! Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly like that, some businesses prefer to take advantage of this massively expanding customer base and instead of going green, they spend money on marketing strategies to present their brand and product as safer for the environment, thus appealing to the consumers.

It seems pretty innocent at first glance but is very problematic for various reasons, such as this, a person trying to make environmentally conscious decisions and eco-friendly purchases, your efforts are undermined because you could find yourself actively supporting a brand that goes against your goals and values. It also causes doubts and skepticism to develop concerning organizations and companies that are actively committed to sustainability and makes it difficult to tell the difference between a greenwashing brand and a brand that provides eco-friendly services. 

Here are some incidents of greenwashing by some companies in which have taken place in the past;

McDonald’s is one company that has practiced greenwashing. In 2009 the fast-food chain changed its logo to green in its branches in Europe accompanied by the slogan “going green”. They did this to indicate that they were doing their part in the efforts to preserve the earth’s natural resources. However, this was far from enough to displace the wasteful image the public had of the brand. They were criticized because a change in their color scheme without any real proof of dedication to environmental preservation was far from sufficient.

Another greenwashing incident tied to Mcdonalds' occurred in 2019 when the brand decided to switch its regular plastic straws for paper ones. This turned out to be a step in the wrong direction seeing as the newly adopted paper straws could not be recycled. In addition, switching to paper straws was not that big of a deal because straws only account for 0.025% of all the plastic polluting the ocean.

While the company did appear to be taking steps towards improved sustainability, it had made one tiny move and failed to show the world the various, more significant ways in which they could contribute towards a healthier environment.

Another notable example of greenwashing also occurred in April 2019 when Shell made an announcement revealing its plans for a program through which it would make a 300 million USD investment in natural ecosystems. This was done as part of their strategy to combat climate change around the world, as well as the CO2 emissions which were generated by customers as they used Shell products.

However, the oil and gas company continued to extract fossil fuels from the earth eventually going on to burn said fossil fuels thereby making themselves the very source of the problems they were trying to fight, and going against their efforts.

They were putting funds into initiatives to protect forests and wooded places and investing in carbon credits, these initiatives are known as mitigation strategies and basically, work to cause a reduction in the widespread impact of climate change by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere.

After all, helping to lower formerly present greenhouse gas emissions while promoting the continued release of those gases doesn’t make much of a difference.

Despite being an oil and gas company, Shell continued to present itself as an energy provider with 100% renewable electricity, a questionable claim especially following the company’s 2018 25 billion dollar investment in non-renewable sources of energy.

Thus their claim to sustainability lay in their purchase of green certificates and their monetary support of mitigation services while simultaneously investing significantly in the fossil fuel industry. A crystal clear example of greenwashing.

 

How To Spot Cases Of Greenwashing

As the number of businesses that practice greenwashing continues to rise, one must know how to spot false claims. The strategies utilized in greenwashing are numerous, they could range from false statements and slogans to misleading packaging with images of trees and leaves, here are a few to keep an eye out for;

  • Flowery language

This is when the business or company throws around words with vague meaning such as all-natural with no particular element being indicated. This is a fairly common form of greenwashing as all it does is attempt to present the brand as eco-friendly without actually specifying how.

In addition, saying something is all-natural or non-toxic doesn’t prove that it is not harmful to the environment. And speaking of proof, that's another great way to spot greenwashing in a label.

  • The absence of evidence

If a brand cannot supply evidence to back their claims of being environmentally conscious, it is highly likely they aren’t eco-friendly at all. There should be verification of what a company says by a trusted 3rd party. It is a pretty easy tactic to feed customers with fabricated endorsements - so the best way to go is to do a bit of digging and to carry out a bit of research so that you can confirm if what a business says about its product is actually true.

  • Contradictions and irrelevant claims

This is when a company promotes some tiny claim to sustainability when the rest of what it does is damaging to the environment. This is done to trick customers into believing they are actually green when they might simply be following the law and placing emphasis on that one thing to come across as environmentally conscious.

A version of this is presenting a product as less damaging when in truth one is just a little more harmful and probably doesn’t have the term all-natural or organic tagged on. 

 

The differences between greenwashing and green marketing.

It is relatively easy to get mixed up about whether a company is greenwashing or simply green marketing. In green marketing, a company offers products or services that are truly eco-friendly. Here are a few key things to watch out for if you’re trying to market a green product or purchase one.

  1. Details of the product should be available on the label or the website. There should be concrete data about the environmental impact of that specific item as well as transparency concerning all of its properties.

  2. The product should be reusable or recyclable or made from materials that can be recycled.

  3. Watch out for flashy, overdone packaging with images suggestive of greenness and the sort.

  4. This is a tricky one but the product, as well as its packaging, should be manufactured in a safe, ethical environment and be free of toxic substances. Be sure to ascertain that the absence of certain materials such as CFC isn’t just in compliance with the law.

  5. Ensure that the company isn’t putting in the littlest possible effort in contributing to sustainability. As shown before an organization can make half-hearted moves in sustainability without actually being concerned about environmental preservation regarding the whole brand.

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