Tuesday, November 16, 2021
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What is Greenwashing?

In recent weeks, the term greenwashing has made international headlines with companies like Shell and BP coming under fire for false claims and advertising relating back to what has been called greenwashing. As this term becomes increasingly popular, it is crucial for consumers, employees, and employers to know what how to identify and avoid using greenwashing. In the following short blog post, we will give a quick overview of the topic:

Greenwashing can be broadly defined as when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their actual environmental impact. It is a deceitful advertising gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.

The term was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in his critical essay inspired by the irony of the "save the towel" movement in hotels. Greenwashing was particularly potent back then as most consumers received their news primarily from television, radio and print media, so they didn't have the luxury of fact-checking what they were being told like we do today.

Over the past 4 decades, companies that have engaged in greenwashing on a wide scale have made and continue to make headlines. Prime examples include Chevron’s “The People Do” campaign of the mid 1980’s - ran while the company was actively violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as well as spilling oil into wildlife refuges, and DuPont’s 1991 double-hulled oil tankers adorned with ads featuring marine animals prancing in chorus to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" while the company earned the label for worst US polluter that year.

How to avoid Greenwashing:

With the belief that consumer demand for sustainability is the frontier of our transition to a greener, fairer and smarter global economy, Futerra's 2015 Selling Sustainability Report outlines 10 basic brand marketing tactics to avoid:

  1. Fluffy language: Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g., "eco-friendly")
  2. Green products vs. dirty company: For example, efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
  3. Suggestive pictures: Images that give an unjustified green impression (e.g., flowers blooming from exhaust pipes)
  4. Irrelevant claims: Emphasis on one tiny green attribute when everything else is anti-green
  5. "Best-in-class" boasts: Declaration that you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are terrible
  6. Designations that are just not credible: For instance, the "greening" of a dangerous product to make it seem safe ("eco-friendly" cigarettes, anyone?)
  7. Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand
  8. Imaginary friends: A label that looks like a third-party endorsement … except it's made up
  9. No proof: A claim that could be right but has no evidence
  10. Outright lies: Totally fabricated claims or data

The incidence of "pure greenwash" – purposeful untruths on impact of products – is not that prominent thankfully. However, there's a lot out there that comes close. The buzzwords commonly used to greenwash can be described as a "slippery slope" and companies should invest in educating their marketers on the ethics of "green" branding to avoid falling into the category of greenwashing.

Difference between green marketing and greenwashing:

Unlike greenwashing, green marketing is when companies sell products or services based on legitimate environmental positives. Green marketing is generally practical, honest, and transparent, and it means that a product or service meets these general criteria:

  • Manufactured in a sustainable fashion
  • Free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances
  • Able to be recycled and/or is produced from recycled materials
  • Made from renewable materials (such as bamboo)
  • Does not use excessive packaging
  • Designed to be repairable rather than disposable

It's easy for green marketing to translate to greenwashing in practice, when an organization doesn't live up to the standards of sustainable business practices so making sure these criteria are met and sustained is crucial. Words like "eco-friendly," "organic," "natural" and "green" are just some examples of the widely used labels that can be confusing, overly vague, and misleading to consumers so if you’re going to use them, make sure you have the practices and facts to back them up.

We hope you found this short blog post on greenwashing insightful and interesting. If you’re interested in reading more blogs like this, check out the rest of our content available on our website and stay tuned for more new and exciting resources coming soon!

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