In our hyper-consumption based societies, it’s always smart to raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear organizations make claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the quest to “save the Earth”. But when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — it is known as greenwashing.
There are countless other case studies across all industries that show how companies avoid sustainable practices by discovering more examples of greenwashing — like the meat mega-giant Tyson, who got busted for false claims about antibiotic-free chickens. Or the fossil fuel giant BP (who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations) and then got called out for their green misdirection, and of course, Coke, who has been accused of greenwashing through ‘natural’ sugar claims that it started marketing as a way to attract more health-conscious consumers.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. For example, companies involved in greenwashing behavior might make claims that their products are from recycled materials or have energy-saving benefits. Although some of the environmental claims might be partly true, companies engaged in greenwashing typically exaggerate their claims or the benefits in an attempt to mislead consumers.
How Greenwashing Works
Also known as “green sheen,” greenwashing is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sound products, whether that means they are more natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, or less wasteful of natural resources. The term originated in the 1960s when the hotel industry devised one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing. They placed notices in hotel rooms asking guests to reuse their towels to save the environment. The hotels enjoyed the benefit of lower laundry costs.
More recently, some of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, such as conventional energy companies, have attempted to rebrand themselves as champions of the environment. Products are greenwashed through the process of renaming, rebranding, or repackaging them. Greenwashed products might convey the idea that they’re more natural, wholesome, or free of chemicals than competing brands. Companies have engaged in greenwashing via press releases and commercials touting their clean energy or pollution reduction efforts. In reality, these companies are not making a meaningful commitment to green initiatives. In short, companies that make unsubstantiated claims that their products are environmentally safe or provide some green benefit are involved in greenwashing.
Examples of Greenwashing
- A plastic package containing a new shower curtain is labeled as “recyclable.” It is not clear whether the package or the shower curtain is recyclable. In either case, the label is deceptive if any part of the package or its contents, other than minor components, cannot be recycled.
- An area rug is labeled “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. Although technically true, the message conveys the false impression that the rug contains a significant amount of recycled fiber.
- A trash bag is labeled “recyclable.” Trash bags are not ordinarily separated from other trash at the landfill or incinerator, so they are highly unlikely to be used again for any purpose. The claim is deceptive since it asserts an environmental benefit where no meaningful benefit exists.
Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on. The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution, and global species extinctions. The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident, as they don’t have the expertise to know what is truly beneficial for the environment, and what is not.
We are approaching a critical time in which more organizations and individuals are adopting sustainable design and zero waste living practices, and entire communities are banning disposable plastics. It’s important to be able to quickly identify instances of greenwashing, and replace them with truly sustainable practices both as a consumer and as an employee. Tools such as life cycle assessment allow organizations to understand what is going on when they make changes and to ensure that if they make claims about the eco-credentials, they are validated, and not just assumed.
Acaroglu, L. (2020, October 09). What is Greenwashing? How to Spot It and Stop it. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://medium.com/disruptive-design/what-is-greenwashing-how-to-spot-it-and-stop-it-c44f3d130d5
Kenton, W. (2020, August 29). What You Should Know About Greenwashing. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp
The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing. (2016, August 20). Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies