As people around the world become more aware of the importance of their everyday choices and purchases, many companies are also becoming more sustainable in the way they work to win favor with consumers. In theory this is a good thing, but many have simply put up a facade of sustainability while continuing with activities that create more waste or greenhouse gases. This is called ‘greenwashing’, but what exactly is it and how do you prevent companies from doing it?

What is greenwashing?

What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money promoting themselves as sustainable than actually minimizing their impact on the environment. It is a deceptive advertising method to win favor with consumers who choose to support companies that want to improve the planet. Greenwashing occupies a valuable space in the fight against environmental issues, such as climate change, plastic ocean pollution, air pollution and global species extinction.

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in an essay criticizing the irony of the then ‘save the towel’ movement in hotels. He noted the sheer amount of trash he had encountered throughout the rest of the hotel, where there were no visible signs of efforts to become more sustainable. He said the hotel was instead simply trying to cut costs by not having to wash towels as often, but by marketing it as eco-friendly.

Why do companies greenwash?

It’s simple: being seen as ethical drives profitability. A report from McKinsey shows that Gen Z (people born between 1996 and 2010) are more likely to spend money on companies and brands that are considered ethical. Another report from Nielson’s Global Corporate Sustainability found that 66% of consumers would spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable brand. This rises to 73% among millennials. Companies therefore have a financial incentive to be more socially aware, or at least seem to do so.

However, another reason companies are greenwashing is far less insidious: they just don’t know they’re doing it. Many companies simply do not have the expertise to know what is really beneficial for the environment and what is not. In Australia, a company switched to using “biodegradable” plastic, which technically did not degrade completely, but instead breaks down into smaller parts unless processed in a digester specially designed to meet the conditions for biodegradation. to create. What the company actually needed was a compostable bag, something completely different. The country’s consumer watchdog even fined them to stop selling the product because it was completely counterfeit.

It is very likely that this company wanted to be eco-friendly but got caught for their lack of research into what actually are sustainable materials. That’s why it’s so important for companies to do meaningful research on how to be sustainable and apply it to all stages of their operations, not just what consumers see.

What are examples of greenwashing?

Unfortunately, there are many examples of organizations engaged in greenwashing. A classic example is Volkswagen, which admitted to cheating on emissions tests by equipping several vehicles with a “defective” device, software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test and adjust its performance to lower emissions levels. All this while praising the low emissions and eco-friendly features of its vehicles in marketing campaigns. In reality, these engines emitted up to 40 times the allowable limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.

Another example is fossil fuel giant BP, who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations, then came under fire for their green deception.

In 2018, Nestlé released a statement saying it had “ambitions” to make its packaging 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. However, environmental groups were quick to point out that the company had not released clear objectives and associated timeline. Greenpeace responded by releasing its own blistering statement, saying: “Nestlé’s statement on plastic packaging contains more of the same greenwashing baby steps to address a crisis it has created. It will not deliver a significant reduction.” single-use plastic, and it sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world.” In 2020, Nestlé, along with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, was named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row.

Half of the world’s single-use plastic has been produced in the past 16 years and 91% of the plastic produced worldwide is not recycled. This is why companies claiming to make ‘reusable plastic’ are so damaging – we need to make less plastic. It’s all well and good to make plastic that is recyclable, but the statistics above show that it’s pointless if this plastic ends up in a landfill anyway. Many types of plastic are difficult to recycle, either because countries do not have the necessary machinery or because people simply do not have the time and/or desire to recycle their goods.

Measures and improvements

Fortunately, some countries are starting to crack down on greenwash marketing. In 2019, the Norwegian Consumer Authority ruled last year that the fast fashion brand H&M was being investigated for its supposedly ethical ‘Conscious’ collection. H&M and other fast fashion retailers are known for exploiting the vagueness of green terminology to appear more environmentally conscious and sell more clothes. This is a problem as fast fashion is one of the biggest polluters in the world, with more than £140 million worth of clothes ending up in landfills every year.

How can you recognize and prevent greenwashing?

Beware of “fluffy language”, words or terms with no obvious meaning (eg “environmentally friendly” or “sustainably produced”).

Statements from a company that’s just a little greener than the rest, even if the rest is pretty awful (eg BP puts solar panels on its gas stations and says it’s “working to be more sustainable”).

“Greening” hazardous products to make them appear safe (eg “environmentally friendly” cigarettes).

Using information that only a scientist can verify or understand, provide no proof of a claim, present totally made-up claims or data as fact, or emphasize a little green attribute when everything else is anything but green.

In addition to looking for this behavior from companies, there are also some online tools and search engines, such as Project CECE and Ethical Made Easy, that can help you find sustainable brands and avoid brands that simply pretend to be sustainable.

Time for change

Today’s sustainable landscape is not like Jay Westerveld’s time in the 80s – we have the resources to research brands. Consumers have enormous power; we create the landscape in which companies operate, so where our money goes is their focus. Together as consumers, we must ensure that this focus is directed towards sustainability.

e-Fulfillment Hub helps companies and organizations to become more sustainable. Through a large distribution network and strong, close ties with partners from various branches of commerce, we make sustainable business possible.

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