Greenwashing: A Tale of Wearing Green-Tinted Glasses
What’s the deal with everyone seeming to care about the environment all of a sudden? Energy companies are talking about ‘clean’ energy, clothing brands are producing ‘eco’ lines, and every other ad talks about making deliveries with electric vans or how products are made of recycled plastic bottles.
Is this what we’ve all been wanting? Companies finally taking ownership in the massive part that they play in polluting our planet, and changing their processes to do something about it.
Well, yes. But that’s not what’s going on.
It’s great that companies are realising that their environmental impact is important (to consumers at the very least) and are cleaning up their image, but if more resources goes into telling us how great and sustainable they are rather than actually making them great and sustainable, that’s a bit deceptive. That’s greenwashing.
Greenwashing, or green sheen, is defined as “behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.
This isn’t a new phenomenon.
This marketing tactic has been around since the 1960s when the nuclear power industry was facing criticism during the anti-nuclear movement. The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by Jay Westerveld regarding an environmental initiative that was introduced at a beach resort. The resort in Samoa promoted its reusable towel service, encouraging guests to reuse towels to help save the oceans and reefs, meanwhile the hotel was expanding further into the local area and negatively impacting the environment.
Why do it?
There is an age old saying in business — the customer is always right — and when the customer wants eco-friendly products from a business with sustainable and ethical services, that’s what is good for business.
A 2015 Nielson poll found that 66% of people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and of those people 50% of their purchasing decisions are influenced by sustainability features. Research from McKinsey found that Gen Z (those born roughly between 1995 and 2010) are more likely to spend money on companies and brands that are seen to be ethical.
Companies know this and some have made the necessary changes, or have even just implemented sustainable practices from the beginning. Others are using the magic of smoke, mirrors and marketing to seem ‘ethical’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ (aka they’re greenwashing).
How to spot greenwashing
If some companies are making positive changes and others are stretching the truth, how can we tell the difference? There are a few things we can consider next time we see an ad or hear about a company’s next eco-friendly initiative.
What is their definition of ‘sustainable’?
We might not share the same definition of what environmentally friendly or sustainable is. One company might consider its energy to be 100% renewable because uses carbon offsetting, despite continuing to invest in oil and gas, nonrenewable energy sources. Whereas another directly invests in renewable energy sources like solar or wind. Technically they’re both ‘sustainable’ within their own definitions, but what do you as the consumer want to support?
Look for the details.
Claims that are broad or vague are not telling you want is actually going on. Watch out for statements like “made with recycled materials”, “non-toxic” or “eco-friendly” but don’t give any more specifics. What percentage of the product is made of recycled materials? What sustainability goals has the company set for itself and how is it measuring against those goals? If they really care about reducing their environmental impact they would be keeping track. If they really really care, they would have third parties certifying what they’re doing — keep an eye out for industry-standard certifications.
P.S. Terms like ‘vegan’ and ‘natural’ don’t automatically mean it is better for the planet. A lot of natural products like bamboo or viscose can be sourced in a way that harms the planet (through the use of pesticides or deforestation).
What is their bigger picture?
Is the brand or company introducing initiatives that are relevant and not ignoring an even greater environmental harm (paper straws, for example)? Is the company taking a holistic approach and investing in sustainable practices across all aspects of the business, and not just when sourcing materials? Look to support businesses that are transparent about the steps they are making and are setting goals that are in keeping (or ahead) of their competitors.
Although it is great that more people are educating themselves on how we can better protect the planet and reduce our environmental impact, having environmentalism become a ‘trend’ leaves room for some to exploit what is popular for monetary gain. The customer still holds the power, and we need to use it to hold companies accountable and support those that are actually making a positive difference — a business’ actions speak louder than words.