What Is Greenwashing: Differentiating Between Sustainable And Sellable?
Rising demand for eco-friendly products and environmentally ethical business practices signals a fantastic shift toward conscious consumerism; but it has also led to increased greenwashing.
Based on the term “whitewashing”, the definition of greenwashing is “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.
Essentially, it refers to dishonest or deceitful marketing about a company or product’s environmental impact.
Companies or individuals who “greenwash” often spend more money on making consumers think their practices are sustainable than actually making them so. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a product name; others it goes so far as to falsify carbon emission records.
History Through Green Tinted Glasses
Greenwashing has been around since the 1960s, driven by the nuclear power industry’s need to stay competitive during the anti-nuclear movement.
The term itself wasn’t coined until 1986 by Jay Westerveld, in response to hotels who encouraged customers to resuse towels but lacked meaningful environmental initiative.
Around the same time, Chevron was running their environmentally conscious “People Do” ad campaign. All the while it aired, Chevron was violating the Clean Air Act and being sued by the EPA and Sierra Club over illegally dumping pollutants into Santa Monica Bay.
It’s become regular corporate practice in decades since.
Why? Statistically, green sells.
According to a 2015 Nielson poll, 66% of people are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and 50% of purchasing decisions are influenced by sustainability features.
By superficially appealing to green demands, businesses retain most environmentally conscious consumers without actually changing unsustainable business practices.
WHAT DOES GREENWASHING LOOK LIKE?
Consider the phrase “clean burning natural gas”. Technically it burns cleaner but the fracking extraction process bears just as much environmental impact.
This is the essence of greenwashing: taking more or less true environmental statements and twisting them (or ignoring certain aspects) to make the product or company seem sustainable.
Sometimes, it’s completely oxymoronic, like the U.S. presidential campaign topic, “clean coal”.
Greenwashing usually takes the form of one of the Seven Sins of Greenwashing:
- Hidden trade-off: Defining something as “green” by a narrow definition that ignores other environmental impacts. For example: Starbucks’ straw free lids were made of more plastic than the previous straws and lids combined and Comcast’s “PaperLESS is More” campaign that spared no paper in its marketing
- No proof: Claims are not easily confirmed or are not verified by third party certifications.
- Vagueness: Broad, insubstantial, or convoluted claims. These include statements like new and improved, made with recycled materials, eco-friendly, and non-toxic, with no further specificity.
- Irrelevance: Claim may be truthful but unrelated to the product or company.
- Lesser of two evils: Touting one good sustainability aspect while ignoring a greater environmental harm.
- Fibbing: Just plain lying.
- Worshipping false labels: Misleading words and images that imply false third-party support. For example: Labeled as “Vegan approved” instead of an official certification like PETA-certified vegan or certified by Vegan.org.
For a bit of eco-anxiety fun, you can even practice identifying cases of greenwashing by playing “Name that Sin”!
To illustrate some of these sins further, let’s take a look at some greenwashing examples of companies that have “gone green” and been caught red-handed.
VOLKSWAGEN DISGUISED THEIR ENGINE’S DIESEL EMISSIONS
The world’s largest automaker perpetrated perhaps the most famous case of greenwashing documented today.
Volkswagen, parent company of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and others instrumented a scheme so elaborate they’ve been featured on the Netflix docu-series Dirty Money.
In 2015, Volkswagen was caught in a middle of a “diesel dupe”. The EPA discovered they had (between 2008 and 2015) manufactured and sold over 11 million vehicles fitted with engine software that actually changed the car’s performance to cheat CO2 and NO2 emissions testing.
This “defeat device” essentially could sense when vehicles were on a stationary test rig and triggered an emission-controlling “test mode”. Out of test mode, however, emissions rose between 10 and 40 times the legal limit.
It’s all pretty futuristic sounding, we know, so for a visual explanation and demonstration, check out this video.
The car giant then went on to claim these 11 million modifications were just “irregularities”, which only sought to undermine their integrity more.
In the fallout, CEO Martin Winterkorn admitted to breaking “the trust of our customers and the public” before resigning. Aside from taking a stock plunge, the cost of recalling the affected vehicles, and VW’s first quarterly loss in 15 years, the company was also eligible to paying the EPA a fine for each vehicle that breached standards (a total of $18 billion).
NESTLE MADE “LOWER PLASTIC” WATER BOTTLES
Single use plastic water bottles are among the worst environmental offenders. That didn’t stop them from trying to convey their water bottles as “the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world”.
We wish we were kidding about that very real 2008 Nestle ad.
From commercials and labels that invoke images of pristine mountains and clean water to names like Crystal Geyser, they intend for you to believe they’re good for the planet. Nestle, makers of Pure Life, Arrowhead, and Poland Spring, introduced in 2009 the Pure Life “Eco-Shape” bottle, advertised as using 15-30% less plastic (depending on the ad, apparently).
The convenient asterisk following the percentage directed readers to the fine print, which convolutedly explained the number was compared to ALL plastic bottle types, including those of soda and juice (which are very obviously thicker).
This is a classic case of the Lesser of Two Evils greenwashing sin: no matter how “responsibly” a plastic water bottle is made, the truth is that single use plastic bottles have on place in an eco-conscious world. A million plastic bottles are bought globally every minute and the recycled rate sits at a mere 33.4% according to the International Bottled Water Association.
Further, Nestle’s Arrowhead water claims to practice responsible water stewardship over their 13 springs. In reality, they draw water from California, Arizona, and Oregon, all of which have experienced major prolonged drought in the last decade.
So far, no real consequences have befallen these companies aside from relatively minor lawsuits, but things are slowly changing…
HOW DO YOU AVOID GREENWASHING?
Greenwashing has gotten savvy and sneaky: falsified emissions testing, fake “certified” labels, and marketing slogans that sound legit.
So how do we avoid it?
Fortunately, restrictions and prosecuting powers are getting better. In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission (FTA) has moved for stricter, more definitive guidelines, which you can read in the FTC “Green Guides”.
As consumers, we can help by simply being more mindful, even a little skeptical. If something seems suspicious, it likely is.
Go beyond reading the label. Look at the ingredients. It’s easy for companies to lie on the label, but downright illegal to lie about ingredients. Make sure that “organic” product has ingredients you’ve heard of.
We also recommend using the Environmental Working Group as a resource to learn what ingredients really are.
Better yet, look for third party certifications, such as:
- USDA certified organic
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
- Carbon Trust Standard (for verified CO2 emissions)
Among many others, these are great ways to know someone else done the checking so you don’t have to.
We recently listened to a Rich Roll podcast interview with David Bronner (who now runs the famous Dr Bronner’s). Towards the end David talks about trustworthy certifications. He also touches briefly on their own legal activity, suing those who falsely use green / eco credentials that they don’t have.
While we’re not a certification body, we’ve taken a lot of time to scrutinize brands in the zero waste, personal and beauty care, fashion and general sustainable living categories. And one of the principal ways we fact check brands against their claims is also by referring to third party certifications.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON GREENWASHING CLAIMS
In a free market economy such as ours, where we choose to put our money says a lot. It expresses our values.
So many companies bank on (literally) mindless consumption. Let’s show them we’re more than sheep with credit cards by taking off the green-colored goggles.
While it’s important to stay up to date on companies accused of greenwashing, remember that not every company is out to scam us. Many genuinely care about maintaining sustainable business practices and these are the companies we want to support instead.
As always, we hope you this helps you become a more conscious consumer but if you have any questions, thoughts, or tips on how to see through the green sheen, please leave a comment.