What Is Greenwashing? The tales of green public relations

Consumers are increasingly acting as activists demanding stronger corporate social responsibility from the companies they support according to  Brands & Stands report. Organisations are focusing on stakeholders rather than shareholders due to the importance of brand image, fostering positive word-of-mouth advertisement and avoiding a public backlash. For this reason organisations want to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers and make it a unique selling point of their products.

However, every product has an impact on the world’s resources. As an ethical consumer you are left to do your best – pick the best of the worst. Quite a difficult task to be honest.

Little bit of green paint!

What is greenwashing?

It can be defined as the deceptive use of PR and marketing tools to persuade of green practices, policies, feature or products.

 Greenwashing is a term describing an organisation emphasising campaigns and marketing promoting its green practices rather than meaningful projects. Its pitfalls is often to encourages overconsumption, wasteful practices or shifts blame away from the company.

Despite the recent growth in corporations’ inclination to environmental sustainability, little to no official governing body credit the claims to being environmentally friendly. As a result,  companies have had space to put their own meaning to sustainability or eco-friendly actions. While it is illegal for companies to make a false statements, it is not to emphasise small actions or give no proof of action.

Greenwashing is part of a wider group of “colour washing” practices including rainbow-washing, companies advertising their pride goods instead of working with queer artists or supporting equal rights, or whitewashing, originally covering up crime or scandals but can also mean the cast of white actors for non-white roles.

The greenwashing term was first coined by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt – neologism from the word whitewash – regarding hotels asking them customers to reuse their towels while achieving very little to reduce energy consumption in their premises. This example perfectly represents the shifts in effort and the blame away from the company to the individual.

Delmas and Burbano (2011) suggests that “Over 95 percent of products surveyed by TerraChoice in 2008/ 2009 committed at least one of the TerraChoice “Seven Sins of Greenwashing.” The consulting company has famously put together 7 sins of greenwashing to easily spot greenwashing practices. However in an attempt to make my life a bit harder and compute what I thought represented greenwashing I have compiled my own red flags to look for when supporting a company. If you see one. Run.

How to recognise it:

Look out for the following:

  • Don’t rely on first impressions. A few of the following criteria to recognise greenwashing are possible when slowing down in our shopping habits and analyse the brands, products, packaging and labels we purchase.
  • Broad or ambiguous environmental claims that do not have a proof, certification or explanation of the process (the words eco friendly, green, conscious, responsible sustainable). A great article on H&M for further info

Primark staff show off new Disney bits, homeware line & fashion sneak peeks  as fans go wild for re-opening day

  • The colour green … easy but very time efficient. The colour green is perceived to be calming, fresh, harmony and a link with nature. If the company’s tags or packaging is all green it is often to be perceived eco-friendly by default without claims. Whole foods or tropicana clearly wants to set itself apart from competitors as a brand for fresh products and so does McDonald’s with their new logo in Europe.
  • Irrelevant claims where a product would not usually be breaching these standards but adding the claim reinforces the marketing argument. (Reminds me of random gluten free items that have never had gluten anyway)
  • Inaccurate claims based on false proofs or no proof. Many items bare the phrase “contains recycled content’ or “made with recycled plastic”, while consumers would consider this the sign of a greener product, it does not indicate how much recycled content the product genuinely has. It may have been transformed further to enable the recycled content to look like the raw material using further resources as this article points out. In that case the product is not necessarily greener but customers are made to believe it is.
  • Inconsistent claims from organisations. This is especially recognisable for those that have not historically had much regard for the environment. They want to surf on the wave not change their practices suddenly. No H&M does not suddenly care. The organisation that has built a business on the model of resources exploitation (people and natural resources) for pure profit cannot suddenly change their way of making money and doing business, neither do they want to especially at the same price point. Shell and BP have developed low-carbon brands… well despite studying their website, I don’t know how much I can trust it.
  • Masking out some information to focus the customers’ mind on one or several features of the product or service
  • Products with eco related claims such as the below one from Primark. The feminist tee-shirts were obviously a great example of PR campaigns to drift public’s attention of the conditions of work in the garment industry.
Such a monster it created waste and toxic dyes-related disease

The last one is not greenwashing but a PSA this logo does not mean it is recyclable and even if the company claims that it is, your local facilities may not accept it. You can read more on wikipedia.

I recommend to look at companies with a long commitment to sustainability, certified by groups such as B corps, rainforest alliance, leaping bunny, European union organic, fairtrade (or one for organic and other) or 1% for the planet are a lot more likely to be committed to better practices.

Where can you find greenwashing?

Famous examples are from industries that are high polluting where the leaders run campaigns to shift the blame away from them (Exxon, BP, Shell… Hi! ). The campaigns or advertisements are a distraction from the true ethics and process of a company. You can find these terms on your items’ tags, the line of product naming, the description of a service etc. They are often the eco or words added to a product or service without substantial claims to back them up.

For instance, eco jeans doesn’t tell you much about how the jeans were made, the cotton was watered, pesticide use or the dyes used on the jeans. In the same way, the same article was probably sold as “jeans” a few years ago. The word is simply a marketing tool rather than a feature of the clothes. The jeans could be sold as “organic cotton jeans” then it is a legitimate claim. It is even further from greenwashing if the organic cotton has been certified and if other meaningful practices have helped to make the product more environmentally friendly.

Some claims also dismiss the full life-cycle assessment of the product and take into consideration only the eco-friendliness of the end product. A paper cup for your coffee that is compostable still has a great impact on the environment due to its very short usage and the amount of land and water needed for the resources of that cup. Many countries have banned single use plastic coffee cups or stirrers but the paper equivalent is not a viable solution either if we consider the full amount of resources for this product.

‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it’ Warren Buffet

The risks of green washing:

  • Your public image: Disappoint your customers and investors. While there is a growing interest in sustainable brands and initiatives there is also an increase in requiring transparency from companies. Investors and customers will investigate the foundations of your claim and a false claim can backfire quickly. One example of this was Shell asking it’s twitter followers about the environment and the backlash was impressive. While Shell has put a lot of money into moving their image away from fossil fuels it is stuck to them as birds’ feathers in an oil spill… 

Shell ended up closing the debate by holding themselves accountable or somewhat…

  • Discrediting the industry: The diesel gate is the false reporting of emissions for diesel cars by several manufacturers. The cars were emitting up to 40% more than nitrogen oxide is allowed
  • Fines or trials: That same diesel gate has led to many trials and compensations for users. Recently Shell has been condemned in the Hague, Netherlands due to its inaction in the climate change crisis. The extent of greenwashing the company has been involved in reinforces the feeling that they should have genuinely done something
  • Putting consumers at risk with the presence of unforeseen chemicals (toxic dyes that claim to be eco products). Indoor chemical product companies are some of the worst offenders of greenwashing. With appealing packaging, confusing or misleading people who purchase toxic chemicals, offensive to their respiratory or skin health as well as environment.

Further examples by the Guardian

Greenwashing can be seen as a step in the right direction where companies have understood the consequences of not communicating on environmentally friendly actions. However, consumers are not well equipped to determine what is overemphasised green feature or reasonable communication of projects, services or features. This serves large companies with little intent to protect the earth well. The legal framework in most countries only allow to ban and fine lies rather than nebulous adjectives slapped on a tee-shirt. Some actions will be put in place by most companies but over emphasising the scale of the actions in order to persuade customers into believing something the company is not is greenwashing. The recent Shell trial and compensations of the diesel gate leads us to think that companies are becoming liable to their words and PR campaigns.


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