What is greenwashing and who is guilty of it?
The term was coined in 1989 by Jay Westerveld but examples of the practice date back 40 years. Will companies, brands and organisations ever stop pretending to be environmentally friendly?
If you’ve been trying to keep up with COP26 in Glasgow this year, you’ll have come across the term ‘greenwashing’ on your social media feeds. Critics of the conference and climate protesters on the streets are complaining that whole countries are greenwashing, energy companies are greenwashing and even your favourite brands are greenwashing. And with the fossil fuel industry having the biggest delegation at the climate summit, it’s no wonder people are beginning to see through the bullshit.
So, what is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when something is presented as being good for the environment or eco-friendly, but is in fact the opposite. Or it’s when an organisation, country or brand is pretending to be environmentally friendly as a distraction to something bad they’ve done. Greenwashing is dishonest and gets in the way of actually enacting progressive environmental solutions.
What does it look like?
An obvious example would be energy companies claiming to be “100 per cent green” but still using fossil fuels. Another example is when brands present themselves as “sustainable” because they use a scrap of recycled material in their products, when most of the time, the most sustainable thing companies could do is not make unnecessary products in the first place.
There are more sinister greenwashing tactics, too, like a country with a history of human rights abuses claiming to be a leader in dealing with climate change because it’s engaged in some tree planting. Or a fast-fashion company releasing an “eco-friendly” collection alongside all the other unethical collections it sells, to distract from the fact that their workers are treated poorly and paid next to nothing.
Sounds rubbish. Why would anyone want to greenwash?
Greenwashing is mostly to do with money and power. Profit-focused brands and companies don’t want you to stop buying their product, and they know that consumers are more likely to buy environmentally-friendly products. So they’ll do anything to convince you that the latest trainers everyone is wearing are actually good for the planet.
When it comes to bigger entities such as entire governments, greenwashing has to do with pacifying environmental critics and projecting an ethical image of the country to maintain political power domestically, internationally or both.
How did the term come about?
The term was coined in the ‘80s by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld when he was an undergraduate student. In 1986, he wrote a university paper about his research trip to Samoa three years prior where he came across a hotel resort which asked people not to leave towels on the beach to reduce ecological damage in the area. Westerveld found this hypocritical and ironic, as the resort itself was undergoing an expansion that was hurting local marine life. According to The Guardian, he wrote something like: “It all comes out in the greenwash” in the paper. It wasn’t long after the essay’s submission that Jay was asked to write something about it for a New York City magazine and the term got picked up in the wider media.
Are there any famous examples?
Unfortunately greenwashing isn’t new and has been going on for a very long time, with some examples dating back 40 years.
Take Amazon for example. Though Jeff Bezos (founder and executive chairman of the company) has just announced a $2 billion pledge towards nature conservation at the COP26 conference, Amazon continues to be responsible for trashing our planet with millions of pounds of plastic packaging waste (465 million pounds in 2019 alone) and emitting twice the amount of carbon dioxide produced by all of Norway. Bezos creating funds to solve the problems his company is directly causing isn’t noble and doesn’t deal with the issues at the root.
More recent examples include the energy company British Petroleum (BP) changing its name to “Beyond Petroleum” and rebranding the logo green with a sunburst next to it. In 2019, environmental group Client Earth lodged a complaint against the company’s ads on “low-carbon energy” products when 96 per cent of BP’s spending was in fact on oil and gas. This is just one of many examples of greenwashing done by energy companies.
Last year, Starbucks came under fire for claiming to be more environmentally friendly by abandoning plastic straws and making a “strawless cup”. Sure, this cup is slightly better than its predecessor and plastic straws have largely stopped being used anyway, but considering Starbucks is still making plastic cups and only 9 per cent of the world’s plastic is being recycled, is that really good enough?
In 2020 RyanAir infamously claimed to be Europe’s “lowest emissions airline”, which is… very questionable. The company based this on the fact that it uses some of the youngest fleet, which would have fuel-efficient engines and most aeroplane seats being filled up on flights, thus making the CO2 emissions per passenger smaller. But considering that mile for mile, flying is one of the most environmentally costly ways to travel, the claim was bold and people ended up complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority.
When it comes to fast fashion, almost all brands are guilty of some form of “greenwashing” to appear more sustainable, but H&M has been consistently called out for years. The latest example of their greenwashing was with their “Conscious” collection, made up of organic cotton or recycled polyester. According to The Big Issue, clothes in that collection contained a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than their other clothes.
What should we do when we spot greenwashing practises?
As greenwashing is actively harmful to the planet and the urgent fight against the climate crisis, it’s important to draw attention to brands, organisations, politicians or entire governments doing it. If you can, financially divest from greenwashers and don’t support them either. And remember, you can also put pressure on greenwashers by means of active protest.
Greenwashers have been getting away with being held to environmental accountability for years. If we get smarter about their false marketing tricks, we might actually be able to stop them.