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Greenwashing is an unethical practice followed by companies to market their products as ‘environmentally friendly’ by manipulating data about the product to make it salable.
When Christmas approaches, you begin to see decorations, Santa statues, candies and gift wrap all around you. Easter approaches and you’ll see everything ranging from T-shirts to chocolates advertising the Easter bunny or chocolate eggs. TV channels also start streaming movies to give you a festive vibe. As a side effect of these feelings, we end up buying things or doing things we ordinarily wouldn’t!
What if I told you that companies around the world tap into this ‘feeling’ of consumers by using fake and pompous advertising? That might not come as much of a surprise. Remember the last time you were shopping and some product advertisement beckoned you: ‘Go Green with this product’ or ‘We contribute some X% of the price to a green cause’ or, claiming to be a product that helps you reduce your carbon footprint.
It’s easy to be tempted by such promises, since we can see the impact of humans on the planet, and our guilty conscience makes us want to do better.
There are genuine products out there that actually care about the earth and are striving to help consumers make the greener choice. However, with the ‘Go organic’ trend gaining momentum, there are also companies that advertise more than they’re truly doing and subsequently ‘Greenwash’ their consumers’ minds.
What is Greenwashing?
We’ve all encountered people who butter up other people before asking for a favor. Your gut feeling tells you to stay away from them because they often vanish into thin air after their desired task is done—pretty selfish!
Well, companies also do this to their customers. They put out false claims about their products that convince environmentally conscious consumers to buy them. The consumers believe in the sustainability of the product and use it, only to find out later that they were cheated of their money, and their trust was betrayed.
‘Greenwashing’ or ‘ecopornography’ began when companies realized that users were becoming conscious of the pollution problem and were even willing to pay more for environmentally-safe products. The 1960s saw a green wave in the advertising sector. Every company wanted to establish a green image. Products were all becoming ‘safe’, ’recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’. Companies that spent less than 1% of their earnings for R&D of environmentally safe products were ready to spend millions on advertisements to project a greener image to their consumers.
The Bhopal Gas tragedy, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez disasters were not treated as a wake-up call by the world. Although people around the world became more aware and alert and demanded safer products, companies frequently put out advertising based on false proof without any guilt or repercussions.
Is there no way to stop these blatant companies?
As consumers, we can do only so much to check products for the authenticity of their claims, but the government can do a lot more. ‘Green Sheen’ wasn’t a thing a few decades ago and governments around the world were not fully aware of the influence that advertising had on consumers. Environmental advertising laws were created in 1992 in the USA and were last updated by the FTC (Federal Trade Committee, which protects the people’s right to get safe and high-quality goods) in 1998. The FTC has been updating their rules, but the guidelines are not sufficient to address newer claims that promise ‘carbon-neutrality’ or products made with ‘renewable materials’.
- Nestlé, one of the world’s largest Food and Beverage companies, released a statement that highlights its ‘ambitions’ to use recyclable plastic in its packaging, without actually taking any steps to do so. The company has remained under the radar, even though its products contribute to plastic pollution, but in spite of all these fake promises, there is still only ‘ambition’ and no concrete steps for positive change.
- This is exactly what happened to most people when ExxonMobil, the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, claimed to be ‘addressing’ the global warming issue by creating bio-fuels and cleaning up the seas, while also drilling for more oil and gas. Scientists at ExxonMobil had known since the 1970s that long-term use of their product would be harmful, but the drilling still continues.
- Not far behind is PepsiCo, with its claims to stop deforestation after supporting the illegal deforestation of forests in Sumatra for palm oil plantations.
- Nissan Leaf, the electric car produced by Nissan, has a very tasteful advertisement implying that it is helping to stop global warming. Given that nearly 70% of electricity is generated by gas and coal, there is certainly not much “saving” being done by Nissan.
These are just four examples, but companies worldwide in all sectors use greenwashing to promote their products. Even renowned banks claim to be carbon-neutral by investing and financing renewable energy projects, yet they also finance oil drilling in oceans and tar production plants at the same time.
How to avoid getting Greenwashed?
Companies are unlikely to have an ethical policy when dealing with consumers because they constantly promote products that are not sustainable. In fact, these promotions have influenced consumers into believing false claims. These companies do nothing to tackle the main problem, but instead advertise products to ease consumers’ guilt.
- Companies that over-advertise their so-called green policies are often lying, so be aware. Look at the overall image of a company before buying any product.
- Use your common sense—a car running on electricity does not release gas, but think how the electricity is being generated and decide for yourself.
- Only believe in products that provide an explanation as to how it is environmentally sustainable. Avoid products that have generic claims of being ‘100% natural’.
- Look for a certification from a recognized governmental body, such as the USDA or the Green Seal.
- Read the ingredients of the product in case of doubt.
- Some products are green themselves, but the packaging is not. This does not help the earth in any way.
- Don’t be misled by pictures and videos of the products, nor its physical appearance. The earthy tones used in the packaging and the green-colored labels cannot be counted as proof of the company being green.
- Be aware—companies advertise their products to be free from chemicals that have been banned for years.
- And most importantly, learn what ‘going green’ really means. Don’t trust companies to tell you what defines ‘green’ in our world today.
How to actually GO GREEN?
Here are some tips for people who really wish to help save the planet.
- Reduce your waste.
- Stop buying packaged or bottled water.
- Conserve water, electricity and basically do anything that can help reduce pollution.
- Walk; use your cycle or public transportation when traveling to reduce pollution.
- Eat local and organic food products.
- Avoid using chemical products. Shampoos, cleansers, face wash, toothpaste and nearly everything you can think of is available in a green variant.
- Support the right organizations.
- And lastly, don’t be afraid to start. You can do your part even though most people don’t. Be the change you want to see in others.
Greenwashing is the malicious practice undertaken by nearly every industry in all sectors to advertise their products as ‘green’ with false and pretentious claims. This practice is unethical, as well as misleading, and contradicts the consumers’ right to know the truth about every product. It’s disgusting in the sense that it cheats those users who genuinely want to help the planet. The greenwashing practice has been going on for years because we, consumers, are simply not aware. By knowing what ‘going green’ really means, we can challenge these companies for their malpractices and hold them accountable for the damage they are wreaking on this planet.
- Truth In Advertising
- National Institutes Of Health (NIH)
- Greenpeace USA
- Common Dreams
- Rainforest Action Network
- The Guardian
- St. Lawrence University
- NSF International