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What is Greenwashing?

Let’s talk about the troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing: what it means, how it started and what green labelling has to do with it.


According to Cambridge Dictionary greenwashing means:

Behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

The term was coined in the 1980s to describe outrageous corporate environmental claims. Today, the practice has grown into a sophisticated corporate technique.

The term initially appeared when Chevron - an oil company - commissioned a series of advertisements to convince the public of their environmentally friendly deeds. The campaign- “People Do” - showed the company’s employees protecting bears, sea turtles and other animals. The commercials even won the Effie advertising award in 1990. This has been labelled as the historical case-study for greenwashing, as the company, in fact, spent more money on the advertising campaigns than they spent on several conservation efforts mentioned in the commercials. For context, many of the efforts cited by Chevron in their campaign were mandated by the law at the time as an inexpensive means of meeting the bare minimum legal requirements. Contrary to their advertisements, Chevron was violating the clean air act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

The evolution of corporate greenwashing

The term was then coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an essay in which he claimed the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of an environmental strategy, when in fact, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure. Corporate advertisements came at a time where the public had limited access to information, yet, unlimited access to advertising which enabled companies to misinform the public of their environmental efforts - sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The said advertisements formed the paradigm from which corporate greenwashing today has evolved. In the 1990s, research had shown that environmental records influenced the majority of consumer purchases, while today, amongst millennials, 72% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products.

Corporations today follow this consumeristic desire for conscious shopping - to whatever extent overconsumption can remain conscious - and have integrated in their core marketing model what we now know as greenwashing. Companies engage consumers in their sustainability efforts despite the matter of the fact being that their operations remain environmentally unsustainable. Greenwashing techniques shift the customer’s focus from the core business operations that allow for many of these businesses to remain afloat, to peripheral matters, and often aim to shift accountability mechanisms from the business to the consumers by appealing to the said desire for conscious shopping.

Green labels

Corporate greenwashing has now evolved to look… literally green. Using ‘eco-friendly-assured/certified’ labels, corporations now attempt to green their products using such certifications. This practice is often misleading and forms another attempt to distract consumer focus away from the environmentally unsustainable practices that such companies have in place. Such labels can often be 100% eco-friendly or 100% natural. There are over 450 certified ‘eco-labels’ worldwide covering sectors such as food and beverages, cosmetics, furniture and even companies. Such certifications are often carried out by third-parties based on standardised assessment procedures. Nevertheless, such labels often tell only part of the story. Often the standards are set at a low, achievable threshold, therefore, corporate practices that in their essence are unsustainable, are nevertheless labelled ‘environmentally friendly’ or ‘green’ according to ambiguously set standards and certifications. Unreliable certifications often incorporate vague, poorly defined or broad terms which can be misinterpreted by consumers, which relieves companies of their responsibilities.

In Greenpeace International’s new report, “Destruction: Certified,” the organization looked at certification labels in cocoa, coffee, biofuels, palm oil, soy and wood. Labels such as FSC, PEFC, Rainforest Alliance Certified, NSF Sustainability Certified and others were amongst the many examined. The report compared the certifications against the reality of how companies using these labels address the problems of deforestation, forest degradation, ecosystem conversion and human rights abuse. The report focused on deforestation and the role labelling plays in masking the true impact that corporate practices have on forest degradation and global deforestation.

Misleading labeling is being tackled to a very superficial extent despite the potential it holds in misinforming consumers. On a European level, new labels for fabrics will be introduced from 2023 for all clothes and shoes sold in the EU to inform customers’ about the products’ environmental impact. According to these standards, fossil fuel-derived fibres such as polyester will be certified as more environmentally friendly than natural fibres. This is because issues including microplastic pollution, biodegradability and renewability have been excluded from the assessment criteria according to Dalena White, the secretary general of the International Wool Textile Organisation. The campaign Make The Label Count has pointed out the ineffectiveness and shallowness of the said reform, according to the campaign, downplaying or excluding environmental impacts does not effectively reflect the European policy objectives in terms of sustainability and circularity. This is crucial as setting a harmonised methodology for sustainability claims holds the potential to push the garment industry to set actually greener goals.

All this begs the question to what extent are our policies ready to substantively restructure the system which fosters greenwashing?


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