Written by Becky Waldron
Illustrated by Emily Birch
Climate change, and the various environmental disasters surrounding it, is one of the most pressing threats that the world faces today. The business models of most capitalist corporations are no longer sustainable if we want to avoid climate breakdown. Yet, that doesn’t bode well for them and it’s certainly not something they want consumers to believe. That’s why more and more businesses are using greenwashing in their marketing strategies.
Lies and deception are not new concepts for marketing. Did you know that in the West in the 1920s, the stigmatisation of body odour was introduced so that markets could boost sales of soap? We can be easily manipulated and brainwashed by prevalent ad campaigns. Just because they seem legitimate, doesn’t mean that they are.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a technique used by companies through marketing and PR that portray a product to be ‘sustainable’, environmentally friendly, or ‘green’, without the product actually reducing harm to the environment. In some cases, the product or range is actually more damaging to the environment than the previous product or similar items.
The term was coined in the 1980s after environmentalist Jay Westerveld noticed signs at a hotel he visited asking guests to reuse their towels to ‘save the environment’. Westerveld then considered the amount of waste and other non-sustainable practices going on through the hotel. He came to the conclusion that the hotel was actually trying to save money whilst disguising it as something the guests could do to feel like they were doing something good.
There are two types of greenwashing companies can use. This is the more subtle type where buzzwords such as, ‘green’, ‘vegan’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘recycled’ and so on will be used in association with the products. Then there are the larger, performative gestures made by companies towards green causes to masquerade as caring about the environment. This is often to supposedly redeem themselves from their past wrongdoings and destructive activities towards the planet.
The problem with using words like ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ is that definitions can be loose, it’s hard to measure how a product might actually align with these claims. There is also rarely any thorough interrogation as to whether these products live up to this branding.
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
Companies greenwash to appeal to the ethical consumer and to appear socially engaged. In a society that is generally becoming more aware, companies are realising they have to step up their game, especially against competitors.
It’s similar to ‘Pinkwashing’ which is when companies will portray a public commitment to LGBTQ+ causes. You will see this mostly around Pride month, in June, when the traditional Pride flag is displayed over storefronts and products. This is usually followed by other words such as ‘_____ supports Pride!’, but it’s sometimes difficult to see how the company actually supports the cause beyond the aesthetic.
In a world where we are increasingly having to think about our spending habits in relation to the impact it has on the planet, companies are feeling more obliged to appear like they are moving with the times. There is now more pressure on large corporations, from both the government and the public, to reduce their impact on the environment, especially in terms of plastic and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, mass production and eco-friendly don’t really go hand in hand. Therefore, advertisers must devise ploys.
Being a brand that has some sort of affiliation with environmental consciousness drives profit. A study carried out by McKinsey & Co found that those born between 1995 and 2010, also known as Gen Z, are more likely to spend money on products that they believe are honest and/or ethical.
A lot of us know H&M for their frequent claims on their recycled/sustainable/eco-friendly clothes. However, it’s been reported that H&M isn’t actually giving specific information as to why certain clothes are being labelled as environmentally conscious.
The Swedish fashion brand was accused of greenwashing recently when publicly announcing that they plan to use a material called Circulose in all of their clothes. Circulose is a biodegradable, recycled, vegan and non-toxic material. Sounds great, right? The real issue is that H&M is creating over £140 million of textile waste every year.
Their fashion is incredibly fast, which means they are churning out more clothes than we can keep up with. Not only is a vast amount ending up in landfill but the CO2 emitted during production is incredibly harmful. From this perspective, you can see why something like finding a new material to exploit in their clothing, no matter how ‘environmentally friendly’, is not particularly benefiting the planet in the grand scheme of things.
In 2015, Volkswagen was outed for what is known as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, or Dieselgate. Volkswagen advertised one of their new cars as ‘clean diesel’, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered these cars were emitting fumes that were highly toxic.
Essentially, VW tampered with their engines and emission controls so that during laboratory testing the car met the nitrous oxide standards set by the U.S. However, on the road, the car emitted 40 times that amount of nitrous oxide. Volkswagen admitted that they had used this cheat on 11 million cars worldwide.
In 2018, Starbucks joined the movement to help get rid of single-use plastics. They announced they would be introducing strawless lids where you can sip through a little protrusion, making life that little bit easier.
The lid actually contains more plastic than the original straw and lid combination. When the West decided straws were bad, Starbucks jumped on the trend, but it doesn’t appear that they’re doing much else to benefit the environment on a more effective scale.
What’s The Solution?
It would definitely drive us a little bit crazy if we knew all of the ways in which we were lied to by big companies and the media. So firstly, it’s best to remember to take everything with a pinch of salt (plastic-free and recyclable packaging obviously). Corporations want your money and – that’s about it.
If we can begin to learn to spot greenwashing then we can avoid buying products that are purposefully misleading us. Some companies do happen to do this kind of marketing unintentionally, however, if you’re unsure whether to buy from them or not, you can always do research on the brand to suss out what goes on behind the scenes.
The fact that these conversations are becoming more frequent is a positive sign. If you’ve made it this far down the article, hopefully, you are willing to be part of the change. If we can practice lateral thinking alongside building a better knowledge of sustainability and sustainable systems, then we can become a step closer to not letting corporations manipulate us, and to hold them accountable. Generally trying to consume less is also an effective solution when it comes to helping the environment.
It’s easy to feel like it’s all bad sometimes, but I have hope in the resilience, solidarity and call-out-culture of this generation.
Becky studied at the University of Sussex and currently lives in Birmingham. She works as a traffic data journalist and freelance writer. She enjoys writing poetry and songs in her spare time.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous