Since 1986, the term Greenwashing has been used to loosely describe the way companies promote their products or business tactics as being environmentally friendly, when they are not.
Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined this term in an essay he wrote about hotels asking guests to reuse their towels in an effort for the hotel to conserve water, however, the hotel had no environmental intent, and misled guests.
Greenwashing is a broad term that can be hard to define. Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English defines greenwash as “practice of promoting environmentally friendly programs to deflect attention from an organization’s environmentally unfriendly or less savory activities.”
Other keywords and phrases used when defining greenwashing are: disinformation, disinformation for public image, misleading consumers, and environmental performance.
In “Greenwashing in the New Millennium,” Nancy E. Furlow describes greenwashing as “the dissemination of false or incomplete information by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image.”
Furlow goes on to say that the multitude of vague and misleading environmental claims causes consumers to question the honesty of the companies they buy from. Greenwashing of companies, and the awareness of such takes the credibility away from companies who are actually making a real environmental impact and change with their products.
As companies are caught misinforming their consumers about greenwashing, consumers will grow weary of every company they buy from, and even question businesses who truly are being environmentally conscious.
Nielsen Media Research found that 66% of consumers, on a global level, are willing to pay more for products when they know they are environmentally friendly. Companies who want to make themselves look good for the environment, will often release products with slogans or jargon associated with environmental preservation, knowing that consumers are more likely to buy a product advocating for the environment, over a product without such advertising.
Greenwashing is not always intentional from the company side, and some companies even have big plans to turn their business green, but fail, hence greenwashing.
Greenwashing is most popular in large corporations, who are being pushed by their stakeholders to change their ways to help the earth, rather than harm it. This push leads to many false claims of environmentalism. In order to self regulate the damage business practices and production is doing to the environment, corporations will engage in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
CSR is a concept where companies integrate social and environmental concerns in business operations. In order to reach the integration of social and environmental concerns in business operations, companies have to be sustainable and socially responsible, focusing on economic impact, environmental and social performance, planet, people, and profit.
Greenwashing happens around the world, and many corporations are finding themselves in the position to make a change, or remain the same and advertise a change for their consumers. The three largest polluting countries, in order, are China, The United States, and India, and each deals with pollution in similar and different ways, and to different extents. For example, water pollution has been a large issue in China, while India deals with air pollution and food waste pollution.
Because the term greenwashing is broad, finding companies that are truly benefiting the planet, and changing their business practices to reflect that may be difficult. TerraChoice, a private marketing and environmental consultancy in Canada, came up with a list called “7 sins of Greenwashing” to help consumers differentiate between companies greenwashing and companies and corporations that are truly trying to make a difference.
The seven sins of greenwashing are: hidden trade-off, no proof, vagueness, worshiping false labels, irrelevance, lesser of two evils, and fibbing. Although some of these sins of greenwashing are self explanatory, others need further explanation.
Hidden trade-offs refer to companies creating a product made of a sustainable material, but not revealing whether or not the product was ethically or safely sourced, paper, for example.
Vagueness is probably the most important sin, and one of the hardest to differentiate. Corporate vagueness refers to a claim that is lacking in specifics. Key phrases to look out for might be “all natural,” “environmentally friendly,” “eco-friendly,” or even “non-toxic.” These terms are often used as a catch-all on products that stand for little to none of these phrases. Many chemicals and toxins for example, are “all natural,” so adding that to a label doesn’t make it safe, nor environmentally friendly.
TerraChoice refers to worshiping false labels as products that advertise as “fights global warming,” or “eco safe,” These labels are placed to attract consumers, and trick them into thinking they are helping the environment in some small way, through their purchase. Irrelevance refers to corporations stating facts that are not relevant to the product. The most common example of irrelevance in greenwashing occurs when businesses promote a product as being “CFC-free,” which the product 100% is, only because CFCs have been banned since the 1970’s, meaning every product they produce would also be free of CFCs.
How might the average consumer put their money towards products that are actually helping the environment? There are shopping alternatives that are more sustainably friendly than buying from corporations, however, it takes time for consumers to jump on those band wagons. Gearing away from corporations can be difficult on a consumer level, because it is all we know. Shopping locally is a great way to stay sustainable as a consumer, buying clothes second hand also holds a large impact on the environment, and can help reduce fast fashion.