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How to spot and stop greenwashing

The emergence of global environmental problems, such as climate change, extinction of species and the need for sustainable development has driven consumers to think twice about their carbon footprint (Gellweiler & Higson, 2017). People are paying more attention to their impact on the environment, including how what they buy might contribute to these issues.

To keep up with consumer demands, some companies have opted to differentiate themselves by labelling their products as ‘eco-friendly’. They claim that their ingredients are natural, organic and ethically sourced, or that they donate a percentage of their profit to a good cause. And yes, some brands really do follow through with those claims. However, others use this as a marketing scheme to entice environmentally-conscious consumers to purchase their products and to benefit their reputation (Ethical Consumer, 2020). This is known as greenwashing.

WHAT IS GREENWASHING

The term greenwashing was first used in 1986 by the environmental activist Jay Westerveld (Gellweiler & Higson, 2017). In his essay, Westerveld referred to the way hotels were claiming to be environmentally-friendly by placing green placards in the rooms. The signs requested guests reuse their towels rather than expect them to be washed each day, seemingly for the purpose of saving water and energy (Gellweiler & Higson, 2017). Today, the term has come to refer to the practice of misleading consumers regarding the apparent efforts of a company to be environmentally-friendly, often in contradiction to their sustainability record in general (Ethical Consumer, 2020).

HOW GREENWASHING IS USED

Greenwashing is used in many industries, such as food production, banking, fashion and travel. It can also take place across different levels. At the firm or brand levels, organisations attempt to cover up their poor environmental performance through misleading advertising campaigns that promote unsustainable products. At the product level, information regarding the environmental impacts of the product is falsified or hidden (Gellweiler & Higson, 2017). This is often done through deceptive advertising and false claims regarding the product’s supposedly eco-friendliness.

Cases of greenwashing can be simple and clear, such as designing a green label to symbolise nature on a plastic bottle that is full of harmful chemicals. Another instance that can be more complex includes false claims of sustainable practices or a company’s inability to prove those claims. This lack of evidence to verify a company’s claim can create doubt in the customer’s mind about the validity of that brand.

IMPACTS OF GREENWASHING

There are numerous impacts of greenwashing beyond the evident environmental implications. It erodes the consumer’s confidence in specific green products and services, which can lead to a general distrust of anything that is labeled as eco-friendly. This can damage the reputation of individual companies and even entire sectors.

Moreover, there is increasing pressure from the public on organisations to improve their ethical and environmental practices and switch to a more sustainable business model (Ethical Consumer, 2020), for instance, companies are now being encouraged to engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is voluntary (Gellweiler & Higson, 2017). However, there are many interpretations of CSR, and it is a step in the right direction, but the true solution to eliminating greenwashing is transparency (Corcione, 2020). When corporations are open and honest, the gap between the superficial and genuine concern for the environment can be bridged.

Example of greenwashing advertisement

HOW TO SPOT GREENWASHING

Public awareness of greenwashing has risen in recent years. The increased demand for environmentally-sustainable products has revealed the much-needed transparency in all aspects of the production line (Parguel, Benoît-Moreau & Larceneux, 2011). Because, like any advertising strategy, greenwashing is designed to persuade us, hence, we can easily believe the claims. Identifying and avoiding companies who use it is the first step in undermining its effectiveness. We must apply a level of curiosity and skepticism when it comes to purchasing so-called green products. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself next time you’re looking to buy something that claims to be a green product (Corcione, 2020) (Ethical Consumer, 2020).

  • Does the label use fluffy language or suggestive imagery in their advertising? For example, words, such as the use of eco-friendly that has no clear meaning, the use of the colour green, or the use of a picture of the Earth.
  • What proportion of this product is sustainable? For example, organic bananas that are grown on deforested land and harvested by underpaid workers.
  • How does the company define sustainable? For example, they may run on renewable energy, but also invest in coal.
  • How does the organisation compare to others in the same field? For example, they may make claims that they are better than a competitor, but they do not have any evidence to justify that claim.
  • Are there any hidden trade-offs? For example, some companies may have significant financial investments in unsustainable practices, hence, they deploy sustainable advertising campaigns to deflect the attention from their less than green source of income. 

HOW YOU CAN STOP GREENWASHING

To uncover greenwashing schemes as consumers, we must hold companies accountable by questioning the accuracy of their advertising and demanding transparency. Resources, such as consumer watchdogs and advertising standards bodies, are at our disposal to expose and challenge their false claims (Ethical Consumer, 2020). However, most importantly, the change begins with where we spend our money. When buying from companies that indulge in greenwashing, we are giving them the green light to continue using unsustainable practices. You can join the THRIVE project to support businesses who make a genuine effort to reduce their environmental damage, while not exploiting their customers in wanting to do what is right for the planet. 

REFERENCES

Gellweiler, S., & Higson, P. (2017). Greenwashing. In L. Lowry (Ed.), The sage international encyclopedia of travel and tourism (pp. 544-546). Retrieved from https://www-doi-org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/10.4135/9781483368924.n201

Ethical Consumer (2020). What is greenwashing? Retrieved from https://www.ethicalconsumer.org/transport-travel/what-greenwashing

Adryan Corcione (2020). What is greenwashing? Retrieved from https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html

Parguel, B., Benoît-Moreau, F., & Larceneux, F. (2011). How Sustainability Ratings Might Deter ‘Greenwashing’: A Closer Look at Ethical Corporate Communication. Journal of Business Ethics, 102(1), (pp.15-28). Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/article/10.1007/s10551-011-0901-2

Author

  • Magali strives to bring her environmentally conscious values into her personal life by living a low waste lifestyle and spreading awareness on pressing environmental issues. She believes that many small actions can have a big impact and that it is vital we understand what connects us and the natural world so that we can save it.