By Affan Alavi
What Is 'Greenwashing?'
Greenwashing is defined by the deceptive use of ‘green’ language from companies, which aims to persuade consumers of their apparently eco-friendly purpose and ultimately help them sell products. The recent recognition of greenwashing has exposed companies who have been championing eco-friendly production and living in their marketing, but have failed to deliver on the cause, instead hiding behind a veneer of virtue signalling.
Why Is Greenwashing bad?
Whilst not illegal, greenwashing is problematic as, it avoids the need for practical and large-scale change in mass production processes, it prevents eco-safe practices being adopted by other larger and smaller businesses, and it maintains the global precedent of environmentally harmful production and manufacturing.
In April 2019, the well-known corporation Nestlé, had a class action lawsuit filed against them for labelling their chocolate products as “sustainably sourced” and “supporting” farmers. The problem was, this insinuates that the cocoa is sourced sustainably and the farmers are treated and paid fairly. In reality, much of the cocoa is sourced from the Ivory Coast where mass deforestation has taken place in the farming of cocoa. The percentage of land covered by rainforest in the area has been reduced by 80% since 1960 and is still being deforested. Moreover, child labour laws in the Ivory Coast are questionable, where over a million children work in unsafe conditions – including the use of sharp tools, working at night and exposure to agrochemicals. Fully aware of this, Nestlé seem to be complicit in it whilst proudly flying the banner of eco-friendliness in their line of cocoa-based products. They have missed deadlines to remove child labour from their supply chains, due to them only being able to trace 49% of their global cocoa supply back to farms, let alone find out which farms are using child labour. The inconsistency between this and their “three pillars – better farming, better lives and better cocoa” is palpable.
Greenwashing is not only seen in our food and drink suppliers, it invades all aspects of consumerism, including the motoring world. The inherent irony in the term “clean diesel” emphasises this. Realistically, there is no such thing as “clean diesel”, the energy hungry and polluting nature of the production and operation of these cars is inevitable so long as they use fossil fuels. The controversial admission of Volkswagen concerning the rigging of its “clean diesel” vehicles with devices that inhibit the accurate measuring of emissions, led to not only a class action lawsuit where the manufacturer had to pay over $11 million to duped consumers in a settlement, but also further investigations into greenwashing by several other manufacturers. The vehicles found with such inhibitors were emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants that reached up to 40 times the legal limit.
Beyond cars, there is the fast fashion industry where brands such as H&M, New Look and Monsoon mass produce cheap clothing and whose business-model relies on the disposability of the products. The fast fashion business is responsible for not only masses of disposed clothing but also a contribution of micro plastics in the ocean, carbon emissions and the wastage of the world’s water supply. Companies’ attempts at ‘eco-friendly’ lines such as H&M’s “conscious collection” and Primark’s “sustainable denim collection” portray an image far from the reality of their huge carbon footprints due to the waste they produce and the strain production puts on the environment. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions. It is also responsible for the use of an estimated 1.5 trillion tons of water annually (making it the second largest consumer of the world’s water supply), not to mention the release of 500,000 tons of microfibers into the ocean each year. Fast fashion itself is largely at fault here, where disposable clothes are cheaply mass produced only to be thrown away without much use – the business model relies on continual consumption. An astounding 85% of purchased textiles end up in landfills or are burned in their masses, such is the sheer amount of waste produced for the sake of cheap clothing, and such is the hypocrisy of fast fashion’s attempt at eco-friendly endeavours.
A company that features in many people’s daily routines, Starbucks, has also taken part in its fair share of greenwashing. In its bid to get rid of single-use plastic straws, the chain introduced a new straw-less lid which managed to contain more plastic than the combination of the old lid and straw. This is a perfect example of consumer deception and its consequences should not be undermined. Starbucks is a huge contributor of plastic pollution with over 6 billion of its plastic cups ending up in landfills. In the past the company has made promises to make 100% of its cups reusable and to serve 25% of its drinks in reusable containers by 2015, but as of 2020 this is still not the case as the former is blatantly not true and with the latter, only 1.5% of its drinks are served in reusable containers. The attempts the company has made to curb their impact does not compare to their rapid rate of expansion. For instance, a report found that Starbucks opens a new café in China every 15 hours, a country the company complained did not have the infrastructure to support the introduction of a compostable cup they were developing, so why expand so exponentially there?
How to Avoid Greenwashing
The dishonesty of Greenwashing not only affects the environmentally conscious consumer but of course the environment itself, and if it continues to go on unchecked it will be detrimental to the large scale efforts towards greener processes and the pursuit of renewable energy. But how can you tell if a company is genuinely environmentally conscious or is greenwashing to save face? Some of the main features of greenwashing include vagueness in their campaigns (i.e. no specific goals or targets that need to be met), when the basis of a company is inherently unsustainable or the pollution caused is inevitable, or when the green advertising of a company is targeted and limited wherein small and ineffective policies are exaggerated. On the other hand, companies genuinely striving to help the environment can be recognised through: very specific product claims, for example ‘made with 100% natural, organic and fair-trade ingredients’ as opposed to ‘eco-friendly’; clear company ecological goals with plans on how to achieve them; transparency in all aspects of the running of their company, particularly their supply chain. And this is happening. Companies such as Brewdog, Sheep Inc. and Patagonia are leading the way for businesses wanting to help the environment. Looking for these companies who are genuine about their carbon claims is a great way of avoiding being greenwashed and choosing to purchase their product is a way of voting with your wallet to help save the planet.