Greenwashing is a strategy used by corporations to cover up unsustainable practices and policies. It damages the environment and reflects the established power dynamics in our society. After 30 years, technology can now be used to ascertain a company's true intentions.
People want to make decisions that affect their lives. We want to eliminate plastic pollution, which has been identified as the most serious environmental problem affecting both humans and animals. We want to reduce food insecurity, climate change, deforestation, air, water, and land pollution. We care about the environment.
To help our planet and future generations, we buy eco-friendly products (or green products) and services from companies that claim to operate with both ethics and environmental responsibility in mind. Even if the same services will cost us a little more.
Unfortunately, many businesses are well aware of this and hide higher prices behind meaningless slogans. Let's learn how to spot them and become more eco-friendly consumers.
Table of contents:
2. Greenwashing in business: case studies
3. How to avoid greenwashing with software?
What is greenwashing?
The practice of corporate greenwashing, according to Investopedia focuses on conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are environmentally friendly. As a matter of fact, the more money the company tends to spend on marketing the so-called sustainable products (green marketing), the less money remains on implementing actual sustainable practices.
The term was first used in the mid-1980s when Jay Westerveld wrote a paper on multiculturalism. He recalled his stay in a guesthouse in Fiji, which happen to be close to the Beachcomber Resort. As he writes, the pile of resort towels was labeled with a note requesting that guests pick up (and reuse) their towels in order to reduce environmental damage, as the oceans and reefs are valuable resources. Although the message is powerful, the responsible company wasn’t particularly concerned about the island's ecosystem as it was (then) heavily investing in building more bungalows.
What’s wrong with that you may ask? The true fight for coral reefs is multi-dimensional and should not be reduced to simply picking up the towels – which was probably intended to save money on laundry costs. If you want to learn more about this subject, take a look at the recommendations published by the EPA.
Greenwashing in business: case studies
As the consumer demand for environmentally friendly products grows, an increasing number of businesses are attempting to incorporate sustainability into their core values. Unfortunately, as long as society lacks a sufficient level of environmental awareness, thousands of customers will be misled by vague and irrelevant claims masquerading as eco-friendliness.
Ensure that your company is not undermining customer trust by green marketing, by thoroughly examining the most-known examples of greenwashing from the last century.
Greenwashing in the (nuclear) energy industry
This case can be considered a greenwashing pioneer as the practices date back to the 1960s, long before the term was coined. Concerned that the anti-nuclear environmental movement's growth would jeopardize its operations, Westinghouse Electric Co. decided to run a series of picturesque ads depicting the cleanliness of nuclear plants. They basically showed a plant in the middle of nature with a slogan claiming that the upcoming plants will provide even more cheap energy while remaining odorless and safe.
The half-true worked. When compared to coal plants, the plants truly reduced pollution and provided lower energy prices. On the other hand, two meltdowns occurred, resulting in the emergence of a new environmentally hazardous problem: nuclear waste.
Greenwashing in the oil industry
Another well-known case is Chevron's People Do campaign. Through a series of nature-documentary-alike commercials, the company coined its image as a brand that truly cares about the environment i.e.: drilling for oil in the winter (when nature sleeps), digging special water holes for desert animals, and leaving pipes in the ground so the smaller endangered species can hide in them from predators. They also engaged in multiple other environmental programs, including investing in a butterfly preserve, and sea turtles' well-being.
In fact, the company was at the same time called by Friends of the Earth the single largest corporate polluter in the United States, violating the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act, and spilling oil into wildlife refuges. The majority of promoted initiatives were actually mandatory by law and the flagship butterfly preservation program cost a fracture of the advertising budget.
Greenwashing in marketing: reselling packages
We are putting Nestle here, but the majority of the water industry is a match as well. The typical water commercial refers to its origins, showcasing mountain streams and wild lakes, almost suggesting that the bottles are filled by simply dipping them into the freshwater. To reduce the environmental impact, we can now buy bottled water, “the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world” (source), made from recycled plastic – which should obviously stop the production of additional packages.
Sadly, as the companies started to sell water, some regions around spring sources started to experience longer periods of drought (for Nestle: California, Arizona, and Oregon). And of 1.8M tonnes of recycled flake output from bottles, only 31% are recycled into pellets for bottles.
Greenwashing in fashion
H&M, the Swedish fashion giant, runs a unique campaign promoting the reduction of clothing waste. The Consciousness program offered a discount coupon in exchange for a bag of unwanted clothes. The main idea behind the initiative was to keep buyers from throwing the clothes into the garbage as the textiles are generally harder to recycle. As the season passed, the shelves started to fill with the Conscious Collection, which was made from another eco-friendly material: Pinatex (made from fruit peelings).
As great as this all sounds, keep in mind that every 1000 tons of old textiles would take approx. 12 years to reuse, whereas the same amount of new clothing is manufactured in a matter of days. The problem is that the brand produces clothes in developed countries, which do not have the resources to process such quantities of waste. And when it comes to Pinatex, one square meter requires only the longest fibers of 480 pineapple leaves, while the rest still goes back to the trash.
Another interesting case is Zara’s Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) collection, composed of nine items made from naturally sourced materials – as opposed to thousands of items made “in a regular way”.
Greenwashing in automotive
To gain some brand points, Volksvagen declared that its ‘clean diesel’ vehicles have reduced emissions of nitrogen oxide pollutants. After seven years it was discovered that the lover values were in fact a result of software modifications that altered their performance during emission tests - and the cars are in fact emitting 40 times the amount allowed by US legislation.
How to avoid greenwashing with software?
As a consumer: do the research thoroughly
Greenwashing attempts become less visible as time passes. If you want to make an informed decision, start by researching your chosen brand's archives on sites like Ethical Consumer, and PETA, or go industry-specific selecting i.e. Good on You (for fashion).
What should you look for?
According to Greenpeace, the following are the top features that may indicate that the observer set of companies greenwashes:
- Token gestures; focus around promoting one, chosen green feature. The eco-friendly change is usually defined by making a single step by the company (as in, exchanging plastic straws for paper ones), while other - usually more important - problems remain unchanged (i.e. waste disposal).
- Not being specific; the wider the context, the better. Think about the recyclable symbols on packaging made from different materials, without the clarification of which part of it can actually be reused. Sometimes poor quality is also hidden under marking production regions as the whole continent.
- No evidence; don’t take the company’s word on anything and search for the proof. Always check the founders of linked reports, as they’re usually influenced by the quoted brand.
- Using green buzzwords or images; check whether your product should be even ‘vegan’, ‘natural’, ‘eco’, ‘pure’, ‘non-toxic’, or ‘gluten free'. The natural scenery on the packages mentioned words and the overuse of green is usually just a part of the package design. If you really want to know the product, read its label!
- Redundant claims; are your eggs ‘high in protein’ and the salad marked as ‘100% vegan’? Keep your tabs on those products as they may overprice you for those obvious statements.
Aside from researching the company online – which, let's face it, takes time and effort and is hard to do for thousands of brands in our daily lives – you may also test out mobile apps designed with sustainability in mind.
A non-profit app, Ethical Barcode, is a barcode-scan type of software that scans barcodes and displays the values important to the brands you're looking at. This allows you to rapidly determine whether you want to support the firm or not, based on their genuine activities rather than gorgeous packages. Another sustainable app, Giki, includes two components, one of which allows you to track the product's carbon emissions and the other labeled with one of the 15 eco-friendly badges (for i.e. animal welfare, better packaging). Alternatively, Green Choice can be used to create a carbon-free cart.
As consumer 'green' consciousness grows, more apps emerge to meet the growing demand for environmentally sustainable items.
As a business owner: back up your actions with data
We hope you did not skip ahead to this section of the article, but if you did, we recommend you take another look at Greenpeace's list. In fact, all you need to do is the opposite.
Greenwashing occurs when businesses capitalize on consumers' growing desire for environmentally friendly products. What's crucial, even when applying sustainable business practices, you can accidentally greenwash. Some environmental issues may appear from simply not understanding the product's lifecycle or the materials used. Regardless, the practice is extremely harmful, whether accidental or not.
Consider going green as a business opportunity rather than a cost to be incurred in order to promote the brand to demanding audiences. If you're ready for a change, broaden your core business mission, values, and strategy in a less-wasteful direction. And, if you do add something, make it consistent – in an era of rising consumer skepticism of unsubstantiated, ambiguous, or irrelevant misleading environmental claims, any one-time actions will be immediately detected.
But don't label every action you've taken as green. In fact, only use information that can be supported by data (optimally collected by at least legitimate sources as well).
How exactly can you collect such data?
- Follow the example of Santander, Wizzar, and Skyscanner and install a carbon footprint calculator (i.e. Choose) to measure, manage and offset your company's greenhouse gas emissions.
- Another interesting approach to carbon footprint in the restaurant industry is Klimato, which based on the plate/dish composition is able to suggest more environment-friendly substitutes.
- Stay up with sustainability requirements by using Encamp, a software dedicated to assisting users in understanding all regulatory deadlines and facilitating the submission of compliance reports.
- We also recommend using waste management software (i.e. Carrot), which provides information on valuable elements that can be reused or recycled. It also enables you to reduce residual waste while increasing sorting rates.
- You can also request dedicated software which collects ongoing data on chosen factors but – due to the transparency concern – you should opt for sharing the data with an independent research organization that conducts research on sustainability and publishes the results periodically.
As the Cambridge Dictionary states, greenwashing is to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is. The strategy of dissemination of false information in order to create a positive image of sustainability is common among businesses. This is especially ironic due to the fact that the trust is a foundation for supporting a purposeful brand for over 9/10 of Gen Z (92%) and Millenials (90%), 81% of Gen-X responders, and 77% of Baby Boomers.
With two-thirds of consumers looking for companies that emphasize sustainable practices, the temptation to greenwash is strong. So, how should you convey a genuine interest in the future of the Earth? Codete's dedicated workshops can assist you in unlocking your company's potential by recommending the actions and mindset required for an upgrade to a greener future.
The most reliable way to combat greenwashing is to collect and report your data accurately. By partnering with Codete's data science and software development experts, your organization can use cutting-edge solutions to combat greenwashing by transparently and accurately promoting your sustainability goals and actions. We can also help you move some of your resources and processes to the cloud, which will reduce waste, storage space, and costs and allow you to focus on making the world a better place. Don't hesitate to contact us >