Greenwashing: What’s Behind the Green Cover?

Nowadays, being eco-friendly sells. “Sustainable” has been the buzzword in recent years, with businesses and brands of all kinds using it to prove their green credentials. But are they really doing it right?

Greenwashing happens when businesses market themselves and their products as green and sustainable, without doing the work that is required to ensure that they are actually sustainable, or when companies try to persuade people that they are more concerned about the environment than they really are. Cambridge English Dictionary defines greenwashing as:

“behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”

The term greenwashing was coined around the mid-1980s by Jay Westervelt after a hotel stay. The hotel asked its guests to reuse their towels to “save our planet”, due to the excessive amount of resources used to wash a tower. However, to Westervelt, that seemed like an irony, because the hotel could waste energy in various ways, which it did not do anything to reverse, and not having to wash as many towels as usual, in the end, was just another way of cutting costs.

And just like that, the green vocabulary started to be used less for real efforts made towards sustainability, but more for marketing ploys.

A popular case of greenwashing that is widely discussed among both academic researchers and industry practitioners is FIJI Water. The company markets its product as “Earth’s Finest Water”, sourced from the islands of Fiji and “untouched by man”. But that is extremely ironic and paradoxical for a company that bottles water in plastic and ships it to retailers and consumers around the globe. FIJI Water is not as eco-friendly as its packaging and advertising suggest. (I would recommend this video, for a more thorough understanding of FIJI’s greenwashing case.)

With its marketing efforts, FIJI tries to put up a sustainable facade to cover up its less-than-exemplary records regarding environmental issues. But that is just one way how companies are greenwashing nowadays. Other businesses are also often seen to label their products “green”, “sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, without any verification or accountability for the real meanings behind these flashy terms.

So why do companies greenwash and bombard you with their “sustainable” messages? Simply because they tell you what you want to hear.

As climate change, sustainability, and other humanitarian issues become great concerns for today’s generation, consumers actively seek to purchase products that are socially and ecologically ethical. Buying such products is supposedly good for the environment, but what’s more, it makes customers feel good about themselves. As many as 65% of consumers in a survey indicate that they want to buy from brands that support sustainability. This figure is exceptionally high among Gen Z, the majority of whom are very likely to spend money on brands and companies that are deemed ethical.

This gives a financial incentive for companies to appear ethical. With such a high demand for green products, they know that their sustainability label will surely drive profitability. However, their efforts to overrepresent their greenness might lead to unwanted consequences. Greenwashing creates more problems than actually solving anything.

Greenwashing advertisements are, first and foremost, misleading to customers. They give the impression that products are “greener” than they actually are. Brands hide behind the vague terminology of the sustainability field, leaving their customers clueless, as to how the products are actually green and ethical. This is typically true in the fashion industry, with a prime example being H&M Conscious Collection. Without clear and transparent information about why the collection is labelled “conscious”, the brand might be misleading their customers, just to sell more clothes. Indeed, being truly green is almost impossible for the fast fashion industry, which churns out nearly 1 billion pieces of clothing each year, and responsible for 5% of global emissions.

Worse yet, greenwashing messages hide the actual problems from the public. A plastic bottle covered with images of mountain ranges and natural beauty might make you forget about the thousands of miles of transportation that it took to get to you, and the hundreds of years that it will take to finally decompose in landfills. An “ethical” label on a shirt might obscure the myriad problems in resources management, labor use, and inequality, that all go into the creation of that garment.

The first step in solving any problem is to acknowledge that the problem does exist. This, however, cannot be achieved, if companies keep plastering up their poor environmental performances and painting a utopian picture that is too good to be true.

In a time when each of our actions can have a critical impact on the environment, anyone can be a change agent in busting the myth of greenwashing and discovering real green solutions. For companies, it is best to be holistic, be transparent, and be brave enough to admit your own shortcomings. If you want to promote being green and sustainable, you have to be green from the core, and incorporate sustainability in all aspects of your business. Customers would also appreciate honesty and accountability, especially where there is still room for improvement. It is transparency that differentiates true, ethical green marketing from greenwashing.

The power also lies in the consumers, who can pressure for changes to stop greenwashing and unethical, misleading marketing in general. More importantly, as consumers, be critical and educate yourself, for without the right knowledge, you cannot spot greenwashing and distinguish truly ethical brands from those that do not really care. It is not about following the trends, but more about understanding what needs to be fundamentally changed.

It’s time to wash off the green cover, and start growing something green instead.

Thu Nguyen

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