Let's Be Honest, Episode 37: Greenwashing

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment!


Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!


What is Greenwashing


How often do you see companies boasting about their part in the agenda of saving our planet? How much have labels coloured in green, plastered with words like “ecological” and “natural” become present in product advertisements? A process which is now conveniently referred to as “greenwashing” alludes to business strategy, in which efforts are made to make their product look “green”, while no real efforts are being made to achieve sustainability [1]. Whether intentional or accidental, in recent years businesses have showcased their initiative in making their products or services more environmentally friendly.


In an essay written in the 1980s, environmentalist Jay Westerveld first used the term [2]. He condemned the "save your towel" trend in the hotel sector for playing on the environmental concerns of visitors. Despite the fact that this initiative was presented as a means for visitors to support hotels in reducing their water use and protecting the environment, it actually did little beyond lower the hotel's labor costs in the laundry department.


Greenwashing is becoming more and more prevalent. The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) conducted a global review of nearly 500 websites promoting goods and services across a variety of industries, including apparel, cosmetics, and food, and the findings were published in January 2021. The results are quite unsettling: it was found that 40% of green claims made to customers may be false [3].


How To Spot It


There are varying degrees to which a product can be greenwashed, it could be subtle, it could lack transparency or it could be outright misleading, but the unfortunate aspect of this advertising is that it diverts attention from real environmental issues, a lot of which largely exist in the wake of large corporations. To be able to recognise greenwashing better, here is a small guide on the various faces that greenwashing has:

  • Companies frequently emphasise the good environmental aspects of their products while purposefully omitting any mention of the bad.


  • It's customary for businesses to highlight a small act of compassion that has minimal impact on their total environmental footprint, making their actions symbolic


  • Brands may promote a new change as environmentally friendly while neglecting its negative repercussions.


  • By making claims that are technically accurate but unrelated to a product's environmental impact, businesses also greenwash their goods. Examples are a paper manufacturer that claims that its goods are made of "all-natural ingredients" (which is true of most paper) or an aerosol spray that is marketed as "CFC-free" (CFCs have been illegal in the US since 1978).

  • The business may make assertions about how environmentally friendly it is without providing certifications or other supporting data - lack of proof

  • Companies might use imprecise, buzzword-filled comments about their sustainability to greenwash their products. "New and enhanced", "non-toxic", and "made of biodegradable materials" are a few examples.

Examples of Greenwashing

When we talk about greenwashing in the fashion industry, fast-fashion brands are skittering to meet the customers’ demand for more ethically sourced, sustainable clothing. As a result, campaigns, projects and new collections are launched, often without being fully transparent about the “behind the scenes” processes.


Let’s take Boohoo “sustainable collection” as an example. Named “READY FOR THE FUTURE” their new clothing range is claimed to be made out of recycled materials [4]. Upon closer inspection, clothing in this collection additionally contains acrylic, which is a type of plastic. This material is recyclable, yet there is little to no proof that their acrylic is recycled. Moreover, as expected from such brand, these clothing items are priced extremely low - an indicator that fair pay for garment workers is not achieved. On top of scarce compensation, fast-fashion factory workers are forced to work in a hazardous environment. So, to conclude, Boohoo’s sustainable range fails at the attempt to become friendlier for the planet and its inhabitants.


The acclaimed biggest plastic polluter in the world, Coca Cola, has gotten into some hot water as well over greenwashing claims. The Changing Markets Foundation report shed light on deceptive advertising by Coca Cola. The household name has spent millions on promotion, claiming that their bottles consist of 25% marine plastic. What this promotional material fails to mention is just how great the share of plastic pollution is accumulated by Coca Cola alone.

One of the most extreme cases of greenwashing is the Volkswagen scandal, which resulted from the installation of "defeat devices" intended to manipulate emissions testing in 11 million vehicles. Back in 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that many Volkswagen vehicles sold in America had software or a "defeat device" in their diesel engines that could recognise when they were being tested and adjust their operation to provide better emission results [5]. Since then, the German auto industry titan has admitted faking emissions tests in the US.

According to Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, the FTC may issue a cease-and-desist order, as well as penalties of up to $16,000 per violation or one year in jail, if it deems that a corporation has made false or misleading representations about a product [6]. However, because companies are not forced to disclose information on their environmental performance and because many green terms, such as "biodegradable" and "all-natural," are still loosely defined, it is sometimes challenging for the government to establish its case. Because of this, companies are just willing to risk it, if it means putting out a product that is appealing and relevant to the consumer and current discourses. And so, the practice of greenwashing continues to spread.


Bottom line is, greenwashing is not problematic because companies try to be environmentally conscious and occasionally fail. It is problematic because a good deal of these companies play on consumer’s guilt about environmental concerns. We as consumers have become increasingly aware of just how polluting the majority of products we use are. Unfortunately, this awareness creates the perfect opportunity for the market to disguise their products and services as "green" for the sole purpose of maintaining the product's "reputation" and sales. Some cautiousness is therefore due, and we must become more critical when reading into brand advertisements.




Author: Liva Puka

 
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References

  1. What is Greenwashing? How to Spot It and Stop It | Medium

  2. A Guide to Greenwashing and How to Spot It | EcoWatch

  3. Big Brands Like Coca Cola Found Guilty for 'Greenwashing', What Is This and Why Is It Problematic? | Wion

  4. Greenwashing Examples: 8 Notorious Fast Fashion Claims and Campaigns | good on you

  5. Volkswagen: The Scandal Explained | BBC

  6. VW Scandal Just the Tip of the Greenwashing Iceberg | Columbia Business School

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