How to identify greenwashing and choose transparency instead
As we evolve into more conscious consumers, we tend to choose products that we perceive as more respectful towards the environment. For this reason, naturally, we will pick a brand that seems committed to lower its environmental impact over another that doesn’t make the same claims. However, do all brands that define their products as “green” actually take interest in reducing Co2 emissions? Do they really take comprehensive and meaningful action to that end?
Very often, brands carry out a marketing strategy called Greenwashing, which aims at increasing sales by appealing to the growing environmental consciousness of consumers. The Cambridge Dictionary defines Greenwashing as the act of making “people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”. It is clear how the real objective for companies, in this case, is to attract more buyers and sell more, rather than become less harmful to the environment.
So, if we care about the environment and we want to minimise our carbon footprint when purchasing the things we need, it could be hard to pick the “greener” product because we might be deceived into thinking other ones are. That’s why I’ve decided to list some of the most common traits of greenwashing and provide some concrete examples of how companies apply such strategy.
This can be useful in order to identify what both consumers and brands can do to avoid getting seduced by the guilt-freeing feeling resulting from greenwashing campaigns.
1 — First off, I want to say that this practice is largely exercised by big private companies, but we should not ignore the misleading rhetorics often displayed by our governments. This article explains how some governments, despite claiming commitment to the Paris Agreement and to Sustainable Development more generally, continue investing in activities extremely destructive for the environment. For example, Boris Johnson has always advocated in favour of drastic measures for reducing the level of Co2 in the atmosphere, setting ambitious targets. However, at the same time, his government has continued to promote policies that inevitably push emissions up, like sponsoring new gas and oil exploration, supporting coal and aviation, as well as significant road building. Interesting fact: Plan B Earth and three private citizens filed a case before the UK High Court of Justice against Boris Johnson himself for failing to uphold his Paris Agreement commitments.
It is clear how politicians increasingly perceive the need to include green policies (or rhetorics) in their agenda in order to get voted, but, at the same time, fail to live up to their promises. This is a striking example of greenwashing, because they use an environmentally conscious language in order to gain consensus without being really committed to the cause.
Illustrated by Giada Maestra
2 — Now, let’s turn to private companies. First of all, the most obvious representative of greenwashing practices is the Fossil Fuel industry. For example, Chevron and ExxonMobil have depicted the use of technologies that would allow the underground storage of Co2 as an example of green policy, even though it would actually enable them to continue selling their products, ultimately creating more Co2 emissions. In addition, BP, Shell and Total have all pledged to transition from oil and gas to clean energy production, while continuing to invest in hydrocarbons and to be among the industries most responsible for climate change (only 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of total emissions). I found this article very interesting, as it explains why fossil fuel giants continue to invest far more resources into gas and oil development.
3 — Big Banks and Transport Companies are also big purveyors of green crap. Banks, such as BNP Paribas and Barclays, continue to heavily invest in fossil fuel production while committing to net-zero initiatives like tree-planting projects. In addition, aviation companies compete with each other, declaring they have the lowest Co2 impact per passenger, and keep on postponing an actual transition to sustainable aviation fuel.
4 — Finally, the turn of the Clothing Industry has come. There are many ways in which clothing companies, especially fast fashion ones, practice greenwashing. One of the most common strategies is to launch recycling initiatives. Actually, we might think that’s a good thing to do, but, when looking into it, we will see that only a tiny part of the returned clothes get recycled and the real intention is to guilt-free buyers with consumeristic habits and induce them to buy more (at times also offering gift cards in return). Another strategy involves launching “conscious collections” normally made with “sustainable materials”, which is ironic because it implicitly implies that all other collections are in fact not (here you find the H&M Science Story Collection as an example).
It is obvious that these initiatives are meant to fake commitment and deceive worried consumers into buying what seem good purchases. However, these isolated moments of consciousness cannot be the answer and we need to turn our attention towards brands that pursue comprehensive and clear strategies of sustainability. One example that might help distinguish the two approaches is Patagonia’s marketing plan. This brand surely uses its activism as a marketing strategy, however, in this case, its implicit willingness to make profit is accompanied by an actual concern for sustainability.
Transparency is the key: what makes the difference is admitting to leave a footprint and to what extent, but, at the same time, presenting viable ways through which they intend to increasingly better themselves and lower that impact.
Good news: it appears that also Gucci is currently taking this path by publishing its sustainability strategy.
Now that we know how to identify greenwashing, you may wonder what we can do to limit this practice. One advice is to buy more from small businesses or companies that prioritise honesty and transparency. They are more likely to be clear about their production process as well as the materials and packaging that are being used with their community (always, not only occasionally).
Being a small brand of course does not imply being necessarily sustainable, but they often admit their flaws and make public commitments on how to improve.
Plus, they are more likely to engage with their community through social media, which is an opportunity for them to gather advice and grow in the long-term and, at the same time, makes them easier to hold accountable.
As always, here I leave some suggestions if you want to dive deeper into the matter:
- This paper has gathered all the ways through which companies do greenwashing - the so-called “Six Sins of Greenwashing”: https://www.academia.edu/3480493/6_sins_of_greenwashing
- This article investigates Zara and H&M’s recycling initiatives: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/may/26/zara-hm-step-up-instore-recycling-tackle-throwaway-culture
- Lastly, this website assesses the level of sustainability of numerous brands, you just need to type in the one you’re curious about: https://directory.goodonyou.eco/