Greenwashing: a tale of deception

The environment is much more important than a PR stunt aimed at economic growth. 

Greenwashing is a term that you or I may recognise, but is something your grandparents, or even your parents, would not necessarily understand. I never quite realised how deep-rooted this lack of knowledge was until I expressed my concern about greenwashing to my father. He did not recognise the term…neither did my mother. This was particularly perplexing as I do consider both of my parents to be climate literate, or at least I did.

It leaves me to wonder, how widespread is this ‘green’ deception?

Greenwashing is a large reason why consumers do not know whether a product is sustainable. It occurs when companies present environmental tales that divert consumer attention away from destructive practices by using many different approaches. Examples of this include irrelevant labels, not proving the benefits with evidence, making unwarranted trade-offs, and vague claims and statements. All this is a ploy to appear as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible. 

The media may talk about climate change, albeit too little, but they do not acknowledge the factors contributing to this crisis, especially the large contributions of greenwashing. With over 90% of consumers beginning to realise personal actions have consequences for the planet, evidence is increasingly suggesting consumers do want to be more sustainable.

A graph suggesting consumers believe individuals can create an environmental difference in their choices. Source: Forbes, 2018.

However, many lack the confidence to say wholeheartedly that a product is completely ‘green and argue brands make it harder to buy eco-friendly products. Companies and consumers must recognise that brands and businesses should be making it easier for buyers to choose more sustainable products and services, encouraging people to make the best-informed decision they can. 

A graph suggesting almost 50% of consumers feel as though corporations make it harder for them to choose sustainable living. Source: Forbes, 2018.

In 2009, Greenpeace launched a campaign called ‘Stop Greenwash’ focusing on the greenwashing antics of both Shell and BP. Their most recent campaign targets Coca-cola’s plastic pollution, recognising that despite their claim to be improving their plastic footprint, they are still aiming to increase plastic production by one third in the upcoming 10 years. As a consumer, by supporting and following the work of Non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace, you can follow trends and keep up to date with the most recent greenwashing scams. 

Once you have identified a product that has been greenwashed, avoid it. Do not invest in the product or the corporation and please tell everyone you know to avoid it too. The only way to stop greenwashing is to be educated and to raise awareness – we need to answer back to the companies taking us for fools. Corporations can no longer trick you, once you have the power of understanding and knowledge. It is up to us to not stand for this ‘green’ trickery and not allow for greedy corporations to win. 

Greenwashing gives a false sense of sustainability. It is a crisis rooted within millions of consumers around the world. It is a consequence of the climate emergency but also a result of greed. Thousands of corporations are guilty of this fraud, which overshadows the businesses making actual change. It is important to raise awareness of this great divide, calling out those contributing to this fraud and applauding those doing good. To have a chance of creating a ‘green future every aspect of greenwashing and the misuse of the Sustainable Development Goals must come to a stop. 

To have a sustainable future, there must be trust. Trust in corporations. Trust in products. Trust in society. If greenwashing continues, the earth will be in serious trouble.

A step guide on how to identify greenwashing:

  1. Study the product. What exactly is being marketed as environmentally friendly? Is it the packaging, the ingredients, the company?
  2. Investigate the product. Look at sustainability reports and corporation statements. If there is a significant lack of information, something is probably not quite right. 
  3. Research certifications and support from other companies. 
  4. Ask corporations directly when you are unable to find information. In cases where they do not respond, you probably have found greenwashing. 
  5. Ignore all aspects of green marketing. 
  6. Focus on evidence, not distraction tactics.
  7. Question the product as a whole. Who makes it? What is it made of? Where is it made?
  8. Trust yourself. You will know when there is something suspicious and something not quite right. 
  9. Avoid the product that has been greenwashed and even boycott the company responsible. 

Don’t worry, after a while, these steps become a habit and you will not notice yourself doing them!

Examples of large corporations exposed for greenwashing since 2019:

Article by Summer Wyatt-Buchan