Businesses are well-aware that younger generations are more willing to pay top-dollar for products and services that promise to endeavor towards a healthier planet. Due to this ethical and financial incentive, companies often look towards effective marketing, PR campaigns, and feel-good “best practice” promises to bolster their eco-friendly public image.
The pressure for companies and organizations to go green are reaching a critical turning point as claims of eco-friendliness and sustainability are now being investigated with a finer-toothed comb. Companies that carry the highly-acclaimed “green label” are now forced to show up and reveal their weight in gold. But who will bear the responsibility of keeping these organizations socially accountable?
The Pressure to Go Green
Going green has not only become a profitable and practical business strategy, but a socially urgent call-to-action. The shift in consumer preference toward greener goods and services puts many corporations’ feet to the proverbial fire, which seems to have kept their social credit in check. Those that don’t incorporate eco-friendly practices will likely see their bottom-line suffer as their would-be customers seek alternative solutions that, at least on the surface, are more ecologically conscious.
According to the 2015 Nielsen Report, two-thirds of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for green brands. This movement towards sustainable consumer demands, however, is not supported in practice by the companies that are claiming to meet them.
It’s not all as it seems
When companies claim to implement sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices but ultimately fall short in carrying them out, it is colloquially referred to as greenwashing. It seems these companies are pretending to be more “green” than they actually are.
A trend of writers warning against greenwashing has been gaining significant traction lately. According to Leyla Acaroglu,
“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 — this is called greenwashing.”
Fesmina Faizal on feedough.com defines greenwashing as:
“the act of portraying an organization’s product or services as environmentally friendly only for the sake of marketing. In truth, the product or service doesn’t have or hardly has any environmental benefits.”
Even Cambridge Dictionary recognizes it as relevant lexicon, but defines it more succinctly: “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.
Because of how common these practices have become, it’s imperative that consumers that care about the environment (and quite frankly, their own wellbeing) are able to recognize when a company is greenwashing, and find ways to combat it.
The 4 Major Ways of Greenwashing
- using pictures of animals, foliage, pastures, etc. in packaging or labels to portray themselves as “green” or “eco-conscious”
Vague or irrelevant labels
- “Made with organic ingredients” or “All natural” labels are NOT the same as “USDA certified organic”
- Companies may claim that their products are “not tested on animals” when animal testing for that product is already banned for that country
- Claims of using environmentally friendly or sustainable practice but have opposite impact
- Example: Clothing company claiming to use “recycled” or “natural” material while using sweatshop child labor to make the clothes
Irrelevant adjectives about products that are inherently harmful or non-green
- Selling “organic” cigarettes
- Selling bug killer with “all natural” ingredients, even though those ingredients are toxic
Though it may take additional research, ecologically-conscious customers should also look out for the following traits:
- Companies that make sweeping “green” claims without proof or insight into how they achieve it
- Companies that spend more money on advertisement about their “green” practices than on the practices themselves
- Companies that use vague or misdirected marketing
- Companies that claim to be “green” but go as far as lobbying against environmental protection laws behind closed doors.
To better assist the vigilant buyer, there are plenty of investigators that have done their due diligence in calling out greenwashing companies. Many culprits have already been caught red-handed, but below are just a few examples.
Companies caught Greenwashing
- admitted to cheating emissions tests by placing sophisticated “defeat device” software into their cars
- From Wikipedia: “Over the past years Walmart has proclaimed to “go green” with a sustainability campaign.” However, “Walmart still only generates 2 percent of U.S. electricity from wind and solar resources. According to the ILRS, Walmart routinely donates money to political candidates who vote against the environment.”
- Publically campaigned for a plastic-straw ban by designing a straw-less lid
- However, that new lid contained more plastic than the old lid and plastic straw combined
- Their claims of using “alternative fuels” still comprise fossil fuels with significant CO2 emission.
Greenwashing is a problem not only because it misdirects well-meaning buyers, but it also hijacks efforts against large-scale environmental problems like pollution, climate change, animal extinction, and deforestation.
Beyond these significant hurdles, the normalization of greenwashing tactics could ultimately be detrimental to public health and safety. Remember the DuPont scandal? The company is still paying retribution to settle the $671 million dollar score for knowingly manufacturing products with the toxic chemical in Teflon.
The question now remains. Should greenwashing be stopped, or do we simply need to understand why it occurs?
The temptation to Greenwash
First, let’s consider why greenwashing happens in the first place. Businesses that go green have a strong financial incentive via a wide open market of passionate, ecologically-conscious buyers that will pay extra for green products and services. Donning the “green” label makes the company more publically favorable and raises their social credit score, especially for younger generations who have the health and longevity of the planet at the forefront of their minds.
But more significantly, greenwashing can be seen as a menacing byproduct of our hyper-consumerist culture. We still seem to care more about efficiency and cost-effectiveness than quality, ethical buying, and long-term results on our health and environment.
And granted, with all that’s going on in the world and in our personal lives, putting in the extra time, money, and energy to change the way we think and consume on a daily basis can be difficult, soul-crushing work. It’s not an easy feat to give up the luxuries and lifestyles we fought so hard to build over the past several decades.
The Perils of the hyper-modern “expediency” culture
But at what cost? It seems we’ve created a culture that normalizes disposability. When “anything and everything is replaceable”, we lose the ability to understand and evaluate what is truly valuable.
For example, most people seem to understand the deleterious impact of plastic, so they do their best to recycle –or at least reduce their use of it. Unfortunately, in the end, over 90% of plastic ends up right back into the ocean. Even bioplastics that are marketed as environmentally-friendly are not actually biodegradable in a meaningful way.
One can argue that, at least on the consumer’s end, the bigger consequence of this expediency culture is largely “unintentional” — that it’s largely due to lack of knowledge of what true sustainability means.
But when companies greenwash on such a wide scale, their tactics stem more from willful ignorance than true lack of knowledge. Greenwashing tactics are intentionally propagated through well-crafted marketing schemes.
It’s safe to claim that we cannot solve the problems of consumerism with the same methods that created the problem. We need more than superficial “feel-good” marketing. We need to take small yet radical changes on both an individual and collective level to know that “we’re making a true difference”.
What can be done?
There are tools that can aid us in this noble effort. There are movements like the anti-greenwashing campaign that helps educate the masses about sustainability and corporate accountability.
On a behavioral level, consumers can commit to researching and understanding what labels really mean: “made with organic ingredients” or “all natural” labels are NOT the same as “USDA certified organic”. They can also choose to talk to actual employees of “green” companies and inquire about what these organizations actually look like on the inside by asking about corporate filings or implementation of company practices.
On the company’s behalf, the life cycle assessment allows organizations to understand the true impact of their practices and helps ensure the public that their eco-friendly claims are actually validated.
Fortunately, there are organizations dedicated to investigating how socially responsible certain organizations are. (though we should still remain skeptical about these organizations themselves).
More ambitious consumers can check the FTC guidelines posed for “green” companies:
- Packaging and advertising should explain the product’s green claims in plain language and readable type in close proximity to the claim.
- An environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the product, the packaging, or just a portion of the product or package.
- A product’s marketing claim should not overstate, directly or by implication, an environmental attribute or benefit.
- If a product claims a benefit compared to the competition, the claim should be substantiated.
The real work
However, in the end, personal responsibility seems to be the only true way to lasting change. This isn’t to say we should allow bad corporate behavior to continue, but it behooves all of us to place the onus squarely on both the manufacturers and consumers alike.
Buyers can no longer afford to blindly consume goods. We must consciously look at how we engage with our products and services. Our desire to do better must outweigh the desire for expediency and creature comfort. But we can’t do better if we don’t care.
We are motivated either by what excites us or what helps us avoid pain or discomfort. Thus, we must offer ourselves a true alternative. In the end, we won’t care to change if we don’t have easily-accessible information that impacts our environment and practical ways to improve our overall well-being.
Take, for example, our culture’s favorite temptation: the low hanging fruit.
When we’re hungry, how much easier is it to eat our favorite drive-thru food that’s sitting right in front of us versus taking the time to prepare a nutritious meal? Making the better choice requires the ability to delay gratification, to project the impact of our behaviors into the near and distant future, and have the discipline to do this on a regular basis until we physically experience the positive effects of change.
If enough of us can do this for a sustained amount of time, then we can hope to make an impact on a larger, collective level.