‘Environmentally-conscious’ – the trending talk of today. From discourses about the impact of climate change to corporations vociferously waving the ‘going green’ flag with new initiatives, environmental awareness is no longer reserved for the intellectuals and elites – it is gradually being understood and adopted by the man on the street as well.
Clothing brands are proudly stamping ‘sustainable materials’ tags onto their garments, electric vehicles (EVs) have been touted as the best option for environmentally-conscious buyers, governments and corporations are vowing to achieve their climate goals – all while creative agencies continue to churn out the most heart-wrenching, thought-provoking advertisements on our planet’s well-being. One cannot help but think, are we finally progressing towards a greener, cleaner society – or are companies whitewashing the bitter truth?
The bitter truth, in this case, is not whitewashed – rather, it has been greenwashed.
The Origins and Meaning of ‘Greenwashing’
‘Whitewashing’ is a term many are acquainted with. It is the act of deliberately concealing scandalous or incriminating information about a person, group or organization. Along similar lines, greenwashing is the act of providing misleading or false information about the environmental impacts of an organization’s products and operations. This can be achieved through an array of methods; from catchphrases such as ‘chemical-free’ and ‘eco-friendly’ to PR drives emphasizing a company’s commitment to ‘saving the environment’.
While greenwashing, also referred to as ‘green sheen’ is rapidly cropping up in current conversations, it is not a recent phenomenon. Rather, the term was coined back in the 1980s by a university student.
Jay Westerfield, an environmentalist, was part of an undergraduate research trip to Samoa and had a brief layover at Fiji. Hunting for towels at the Beachcomber Resort, he stumbled upon a note requesting hotel guests to reuse their towels. The note read, “Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, ‘I will use it again.’ A towel on the floor means, ‘Please replace.’ Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.” To further enunciate the green messaging, the note concluded with the universal recycling symbol – consisting of three green arrows.
What struck Westerfield was the sheer irony of the note. While it encouraged guests to be more conscious of their choices to protect the island’s delicate reefs and ecosystems, the resort was right in the middle of an expansion. Three years later, Westerfield penned an essay for a literary magazine and exposed the resort’s actions as a greenwashing stunt. Not only did his essay resonate with activists, journalists, and environmentalists, but it was also picked up by mainstream media as people began to name and shame corporations who dirtied their hands behind the glossiness of the green sheen.
A corporation which made headlines for all the wrong reasons was Chevron, a multinational energy corporation that boasted of various petroleum refineries. The corporation, already infamous for its dubious environmental record, ran a campaign called ‘People Do’ – an attempt to publicize their good deeds for nature. Critics immediately pointed out that those deeds were mandated by law – not to mention that the corporation’s budget for annual advertisements cost millions of dollars to produce and podcast. In comparison, the amount of money dedicated towards environmental causes was a pittance.
Like Chevron, companies such as DuPont and Weyerhaeuser were also challenged for activities such as destabilizing salmon habitats, polluting the environment and deforestation. And although modern media and environmental activists keep a keen eye for similar acts, companies are finding adopting newer and more sophisticated guises to prevent exposure.
Modern-Day Guises and Greenwashing
In 2021, the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network published the results of a website sweep – an annual exercise carried out to identify breaches of EU consumer law in online markets. That particular year focused on greenwashing, revealing that approximately 42% of the environmentally conscious claims made by various sectors were exaggerated, false or deceptive and could potentially qualify as unfair commercial practices under EU regulations.
Although this study pertained specifically to one continent, it is not impossible to spot lofty claims made by global corporations. Many of these claims fall under corporations’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. CSR is a voluntary, altruistic initiative wherein organizations contribute to societal goals including activism, philanthropy and charity. Often, organizations adopt an environmental cause to fulfill their CSR requirements.
Ford Motor Company promised to make all their vehicles carbon-neutral by 2050. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard gave away the company as an environmental and trust non-profit, saying “Earth is now our only shareholder.” Apple has also vowed to transform its entire enterprise towards carbon neutrality by 2030. Representatives from almost 200 countries gathered in Egypt for the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) where subjects such as rising emissions, climate finance and reviving damaged ecosystems were extensively discussed.
Yes, there are organizations keen to make positive contributions to the environment. But, there are quite a few organizations which either fail to adhere to their promises or outright mislead the public. Recently, high-profile instances of greenwashing have included companies such as Coca-Cola. In June 2021, the non-profit environmental group Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for false advertising. The beverage company was accused of purporting itself as an eco-friendly and sustainable organization, despite being named the largest polluter for four years in a row by Break Free from Plastic.
As awareness increases amongst organizations and the public alike, it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies to utilize age-old tactics of rebranding, altering corporate logos, publishing vague claims, or simply resorting to Earth Day campaigns.
Along with that, organizations have often made headlines for donating sums of money towards environmental causes. Again, a shocking number of those donations have been mired in controversies and lawsuits. When the Singapore-based non-profit organization, Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), claimed to spend $1.5 billion to clean up plastic waste in developing countries – it immediately came under the scanner. Not only did AEPW fail to clean up the Ganges River in India, its member organizations such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Dow, went ahead to produce more plastic waste with their products. While such actions have invited lawsuits and tremendous criticism, many companies have managed to retain their customers and emerge from the flames relatively unscathed.
A prime instance of greenwashing is the EV movement. Compared to combustion engine cars, EVs are definitively a cleaner and greener alternative. Significantly lesser greenhouse gas emissions, zero tailpipe emissions – the perfect sustainable car? Almost. What most motor companies fail to acknowledge is that the procurement of EV battery components such as lithium, nickel, cobalt, and graphite is extremely extensive. These components are often mined and extracted using polluting methods – and the battery manufacturing process is said to produce equal if not higher carbon emissions than gasoline vehicles.
But as buyers and consumers, people often discover this in news articles or television reports – rather than the manufacturers themselves. And while companies are striving to find more sustainable methods of manufacturing, shielding the current realities of the process from consumers is nothing short of greenwashing.
“Greenwashing is an easy way out for many companies who rely on branding and marketing to cover up their lack of commitment towards sustainability,” stated Brian Poe Llamanzares. Author of ‘A Sustainable Future’ and a sustainability advocate, Brian has not only received degrees in Climate and Society, along with Public Administration but has also pioneered movements in his home country, the Philippines. “Any company trying to greenwash should consider the cost of not being honest with themselves about their commitment.
Who is at Fault?
One of the biggest costs of greenwashing is a significant breach of company-client trust. A 2021 Business of Sustainability Index report by Greenprint noted that 64% of Gen X consumers would spend more on a product if it had sustainable origins. This figure rises to 75% amongst millennials.
Various studies have reflected that increasingly aware consumers will not only opt for eco-friendly products but will not hesitate in spending more. Brian shared a Kantar Survey in the Philippines, which noted that 75% of consumers prefer sustainable and eco-friendly products.
While company-client trust is sacrosanct, there have been very few organizations that have faced the public’s brunt for greenwashing. Take fast fashion brands such as Shein, Zara and H&M for example. These brands have been accused of both environmental and social crimes – from polluting waterways and utilizing toxic materials in their clothes to severely underpaying workers and partaking in child labour.
Ironically, the aforementioned brands have attempted greenwashing multiple times. This includes H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’, claiming that each piece is made from sustainably sourced material and Shein’s $15 million donation to a Ghanaian NGO that works with textile waste. And while organizations such as Greenpeace have called out fast fashion brands at each instance, it all boils down to the brands’ sales – which tell a different tale.
Recently, Shein’s vice chairman, Donald Tang, reported the company’s highest first-half net profit ever in 2023. He shared that Shein’s continued momentum in countries such as the United States and successful launch in Brazil has significantly contributed to the company’s leading market position.
Such figures not only force a deep introspection into modern consumer habits but also socio-economic disparities. In an era where organic vegetables or long-lasting sustainable products are marked with higher prices, people coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds are forced to rely on cheap foods that are plastic-packed, buy clothes not because they are eco-friendly but because they are affordable, and consider factors other than sustainability when it comes to their survival.
This is where the paradox enters. Although our society is becoming environmentally aware, who does the onus fall on when it comes to implementing sustainability solutions? Is it solely on large corporations, the public, or the privileged? The answer to this is yet to be found.
So, will we simply sit back and read headlines of greenwashing lawsuits against corporations – all while continuing to buy products sourced from questionable places? Is that it?
While there is no singular solution to combat greenwashing, steps are being taken by corporations, the public, activists and governments to pave pathways towards a more sustainable and accountable future.
Let us begin by acknowledging that not all organizations and sectors can transform into sustainable practices immediately. For example, mining companies such as UK-based Rio Tinto will probably not withdraw from its many unethical activities in the near future; including the destruction of several heritage sites, deforestation and polluting waterways.
However, a proposed law in the UK may change the way companies like Rio Tinto are held accountable for the harm they cause overseas. The Business, Human Rights and Environment Act would allow people to take companies to court much more easily in the UK for environmental and human rights abuses committed abroad. Currently, there is limited legal recourse for affected communities. And while legal battles often stretch on, this is a small step towards the right direction.
“Not all companies can make the jump to commit 100% to sustainable practices. We need to recognize that the move towards sustainability must be gradual and sustainable in and of itself,” spoke Brian – addressing that while sustainable measures cannot be implemented at the bat of an eye, the measures will be highly rewarding for coming generations.
The advertising industry is also tightening the reins over greenwashing and misleading company advertisements. Organizations such as the Advertising Standards Authority, UK, have begun scrutinizing advertisements with terms such as ‘nature positive’ and ‘carbon neutral’ to ensure that companies do not plaster the green sheen over any unethical practices. This has led agencies to rethink their relationships with accused corporations and even recruit in-house sustainability consultants and lawyers whenever advising clients on their climate claims.
“It’s high time companies begin looking at sustainability at the core of their operations and not just an add-on item to check off,” spoke Prachi Shevgaonkar. A climate entrepreneur and Founder of Cool The Globe, she has been mobilizing citizens to tackle climate change through grassroots actions – while advocating for sustainable and ethical corporate practices as well.
“Leading organisations around the world have begun taking climate action seriously, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also the profitable thing to do. We are at the cusp of a wave of transformation. Organizations that integrate sustainability in their workforce today will be leaders of the new millennium,” she stated. And it seems as if people have begun to take greenwashing and climate action seriously.
May 11, 2023, marked the day the European Parliament voted to ban carbon-neutral claims that are based on carbon-offsetting schemes. In North America, the US Federal Trade Commission is revamping its Green Guides and tackling companies that claim to have advanced and chemical-free manufacturing and recycling methods. Countries are planning to phase out fossil fuels and scale up production units for renewable energy – such as solar, geothermal, wind energy and hydropower.
In the Asian region, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has partnered with the Global Finance Innovation Network to address concerns pertaining to exaggerated, misleading or unsubstantiated claims for environmental, social and governance (ESG) credentials. These are a set of standards for a company’s record that are observed by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments.
It is apparent that tighter legislation and regulation will profoundly contribute to sustainability efforts and tackling greenwashing.
Organizations across various sectors have also begun doing their bit, which includes removing ‘carbon-neutral’ labels from their websites and publications to avoid lawsuits and consequences. Corporations are being encouraged to back up their sustainability claims with credible data and verifiable endorsements from accredited third-party eco-organizations. Along with that, brands such as Patagonia, Happy Earth and LVMH are striving to adopt energy efficiency frameworks and a circular economy.
The journey towards a truly sustainable society is long, but it is always heartening to witness a step in the right direction. While the corporations and governments do their bit, what can the man on the street do?
A lot! From practising conscious consumerism to keeping an eagle eye out for vague greenwashing catchphrases – the responsibility lies equally on our shoulders. Ask questions to organizations, demand transparency in company processes, scan for credible certification but most importantly – adopt sustainable shopping habits. This could mean reusing one’s glass bottles to store ingredients, reducing plastic consumption and buying clothes from ethical, sustainable brands.
At the end of the day, the collective effort is not simply to terminate greenwashing, but also to strive for a sustainable and eco-friendly present and future.
* The above article is collated from multiple sources and serves to provide a brief history of the greenwashing phenomenon that has come under public scrutiny. It in no way expresses the views or opinions of Aspire magazine or its team thereof.