Greenwashing: what is it and how is it preventing businesses from making a real difference to our planet?

Getting to grips with how brands are twisting eco values for big business

We’ve all seen it: products claiming to be ‘sustainably-sourced’, ‘carbon neutral’, or ‘environmentally-friendly’. But when might a seemingly positive policy actually be a bad thing? This is where greenwashing comes in, and it’s something we need to flush out.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, searches for ‘sustainable’ goods have increased 71% since 2016, and as awareness of our individual impact on the planet grows, the public is placing more emphasis on corporations to do their bit, too. While this mounting pressure may have prompted some legitimately positive steps in businesses, for others, the scrutiny has led to a rise in ‘greenwashing’, AKA the easy way out.

Rather than choosing to transform their whole business in order to reduce pollution, these companies put their money behind marketing campaigns intended to portray themselves and their products as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

While the phrase was established in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, it’s gained traction in recent years as more and more people are seeing it play out, with companies using the idea of being eco-conscious as a marketing ploy to gain customers and their trust, while, in reality, their efforts to be more sustainable might be sincerely lacking. In effect, it’s style over substance; paying lip-service to how important environmental values are, without actually doing the legwork to back it up and take action.

What does greenwashing look like in the real world?

You’ll undoubtedly have seen it, even if it flew under your radar – perhaps with fast fashion brands whose alleged sustainability promises couldn’t hold water, or airlines with misleading ‘low emission’ claims.

But some of the most notorious examples can be seen in a L’Oreal campaign from 2019 that caused controversy for claiming its range to be ‘vegan’, while continuing to carry out animal testing in markets such as China. Or the famous rebranding of BP in 2000 to ‘Beyond Petroleum’, changing its logo to a green and yellow sunflower, and pledging to invest in renewable energy. Yet, by 2018, clean energy was receiving a mere 3% of the company’s investments.

What are the consequences?

Put simply, greenwashing stops real action from happening. It creates this misleading perception that businesses are tackling climate change, when they aren’t. If it ‘appears’ as though progress is there, the pressure to reduce pollution, or address production, sources etc. eases off, and nothing really changes. We’re at a critical time with tackling climate change, and this false front of environmental action can either delay or halt companies truly being held accountable for their impact on the planet.

How to spot greenwashing

Misleading claims or a lack of evidence

The Advertising Standards Authority is on the watch out for this: when products or services talk a big game, a key sign that it is all talk is when the brands behind them offer no evidence to support this.

Buzz words and visuals

Advertising may focus on language like ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, and ‘eco’ to present a product, and lure you in with wholesome natural imagery, with no scientific evidence to back it up. They may even have ‘green’ versions of products as a marketing gimmick.

Token gestures

Speaking of gimmicks, some companies focus their eco-advertising energies on one section of their offerings – a ‘sustainable clothing collection’ for example – to hide or distract from the fact that change isn’t happening across the board.

Offsetting alone

Carbon offsetting is balancing out the emissions you create, typically by paying into an initiative that removes an equal amount from the atmosphere. While this sounds positive, companies can abuse the system, either by miscalculating emissions, or claiming they’re meeting certain eco targets, without actually attempting to reduce their greenhouse gas production in the first place.

Vague explanations

If a company is making genuine efforts and fulfilling environmental pledges, it should be able to give specific details. Broad explanations can lead to misunderstandings, or misinterpretations, e.g. by saying a product is recyclable, when only part of it is.

What can you do about it?

At the end of the day, governments need to take action to ensure big businesses aren’t getting away with misleading claims, or dodging their environmental responsibilities. But the good news is that we can still make our mark. When you spot the signs of greenwashing, call it out. Comment on ads, or question brands about unsubstantiated claims. You could sign petitions, and have your say by contacting local council representatives, and voting where possible.

We can also use our power as consumers; let your money do the talking. Spend it with companies genuinely trying to make a difference, and show those greenwashing that they actually need to get their hands dirty if they want to impress you.

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