Greenwashing: what is fake green?

Company meeting contributing ideas for Greenwashing. Image property of ASPEA.

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Greenwashing: what is fake green?

Written by Inés Pereira

Nowadays, we all have the concept of “greenwashing” very present in our daily lives, as it represents a significant obstacle on the road to a real ecological transition.

Now, before reflecting on the strategies being implemented by the European Union to prevent this practice and how consumers are dealing with this problem as agents of change, let’s really understand what this concept consists of. Basically, “greenwashing” is the false disclosure of companies’ environmental responsibility, in which they claim that their products are “sustainable”, trying to convey the message that they are environmentally responsible and socially just, when this is not the case, in other words, they convey an image of what they are not.

This “false truth” can occur in a variety of ways, whether it’s hiding data and information, emphasising a characteristic that can be considered environmentally responsible in place of products that are not, or even using information that is not true.

In practical terms, an organisation can practise “greenwashing” when it publicises that it is, for example, reducing its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions without disclosing the impact of this or data to prove the veracity of the information.

But why does this concept arise?

This term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 during a holiday in Fiji.

Westervelt wondered about the practice of a local resort, which placed notices in rooms asking guests to use the same towels for several days in order to reduce ecological damage to coral reefs and thus “save the environment”.

The environmentalist considered that there was little evidence that local hotels were really interested in reducing their environmental impact and that it was possibly the major expansion process that was causing more impact on the reefs than the washing of towels.

He then concluded that the interest was simply in reducing costs. Westervelt later wrote a dissertation in which he coined the term “greenwashing”, which has since evolved into a much-discussed issue in sustainability, with greater repercussions than Westervelt could have imagined at the time.

Meeting of creative people to learn their ideas. Image property of ASPEA.

But what drives organisations to engage in greenwashing?

As more and more people become aware of the challenges caused by climate change, these concerns end up being reflected in the way they consume and, in the companies, and organisations they support and choose to buy products and services from.

As a result, there is a greater incentive for organisations to demonstrate that they have the same concerns and priorities, even if it’s not true.

What’s more, being seen as ethical seems to generate more profit, which is also why organisations practise greenwashing. According to the report “True Gen: How Generation Z will impact consumer goods companies” by McKinsey & Company, Generation Z is more likely to spend money on companies and brands that are seen as ethical.  

Also, Nielson’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report reveals that 66 per cent of consumers would spend more on a product if it came from an environmentally responsible and socially fair brand, which rises to 73 per cent among millennials. In this way, companies have a financial incentive for having a commitment to the ecological transition, or at least making it appear so.

However, other reasons why companies engage in greenwashing are simply because they don’t know they’re doing it. Many of them don’t have the necessary knowledge to know what is really good for the environment.

As a result, this practice occurs when an organisation spends more time and money promoting itself as ecologically responsible than it does minimising its environmental impact. This concept can be summarised as deceptive marketing used by companies to exaggerate their environmentally friendly actions.

Recently, we’ve heard about countless cases of companies accused of greenwashing:

· Volkswagen, for example, admitted to tampering with emissions tests by equipping vehicles with software that could detect when an emissions test was taking place and alter performance to reduce the level of emissions.

· Starbucks launched the “lid without straw” campaign in 2018 as part of its “sustainability” or environmental responsibility campaign, but this lid contained more plastic than the old combination of lid and straw.

· McDonalds, which announced the same year that it would be eliminating disposable plastic straws in its restaurants and offering paper straws. However, they were accused of “greenwashingwhen it was revealed that the straws were not actually recyclable.

· There’s also the case of fashion retailer H&M and sporting goods chain Decathlon, which have committed to the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) to remove sustainability-related labelling from their products and websites and improve the use of sustainability statements in the future.

· Unilever’s cleaning brand, Persil, was also challenged by the Advertising Standards Agency for unclear environmental claims.                                                                                                 

· Coca-Cola, Danone, and Nestlé have also been accused of misleading consumers by claiming that their packaging is 100 percent recyclable. The complaint was lodged by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), supported by environmental groups Client Earth and ECOS, with the European Commission over the alleged “greenwashing” of these companies.

Supporting documents:

  1. Broken Record
  2. Business of Sustainability Index
  3. Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments By Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Region
  4. UNFCCC Secretariat Recognition and Accountability Framework Draft Implementation Plan with respect to Net-Zero Pledges of non-State actors and Integrity Matters
  5. Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor 2023
  6. UNFCCC Secretariat Recognition and Accountability Framework for non-Party stakeholder climate action
  7. Sustainable Packaging. Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything?

Links:

  1. https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/science/climate-issues/greenwashing
  2. Visão | “Greenwashing is a form of lying, a theft of the truth” (visao.pt)

complementary activities

BBC News: What is greenwashing?
Wall Street Journal: Greenwashing: When Companies Aren’t as Sustainable as They Claim

EASY

Greenwashing: what is fake green?

Written by Inés Pereira

Nowadays, we all have the concept of “greenwashing” very present in our daily lives, as it represents a significant obstacle on the road to a real ecological transition.

Before reflecting on the strategies being implemented by the European Union to prevent this practice and how consumers are dealing with this problem, let’s really understand what this concept consists of. Basically, “greenwashing” is the false disclosure of companies’ environmental responsibility, in which they claim that their products are “sustainable” in order to convey the message that they are environmentally responsible and socially just, when this is not the case, i.e., they convey an image of what they are not.

But why does this concept arise?

This term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 during a holiday in Fiji.

Westervelt wondered about the practice of a local resort, which placed notices in rooms asking guests to use the same towels for several days in order to reduce the environmental impact on coral reefs.

Wondering about the veracity of the information, Westervelt concluded that the resort’s interest was simply to cut costs.

Later, Westervelt wrote a dissertation in which he used the term “greenwashing”, which has since evolved into a much-discussed issue in sustainability, with greater repercussions than Westervelt could have imagined at the time.

Meeting of creative people to learn their ideas. Image property of ASPEA.

But what drives organisations to engage in greenwashing?

As more people become aware of the challenges caused by climate change, these concerns end up being reflected in the way they consume.

As a result, there is a greater incentive for companies to demonstrate that they have the same concerns and priorities, even if it’s not true.

What’s more, being seen as ethical seems to generate more profit, which is also why organisations practise greenwashing.

According to the report “True Gen: How Generation Z will impact consumer goods companies” by McKinsey & Company, Generation Z is more likely to spend money on companies and brands that are considered ethical.

Also, Nielson’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report reveals that 66 per cent of consumers would spend more on a product if it came from an environmentally responsible and socially fair brand, which rises to 73 per cent among millennials. In this way, companies have a financial incentive to be committed to the ecological transition, or at least to appear so.

However, other reasons why companies engage in greenwashing are simply because they don’t know they’re doing it. Many don’t have the necessary knowledge to know what is really good for the environment.

As a result, this practice happens when an organisation spends more time and money promoting itself as green than minimising its environmental impact.

Recently, we’ve heard of countless cases of companies accused of greenwashing:

  •  Volkswagen, for example, admitted to tampering with emissions tests by equipping vehicles with software that could detect when an emissions test was taking place and alter performance to reduce the level of emissions.
  •  Starbucks launched the “lid without straw” campaign in 2018 as part of its sustainability campaign, but this lid contained more plastic than the old combination of lid and straw.
  •  McDonald’s, which announced the same year that it would eliminate disposable plastic straws in its restaurants and offer paper straws. However, they were accused of “greenwashing” when it was revealed that the straws were not actually recyclable.
  •  There’s also the case of fashion retailer H&M and sporting goods chain Decathlon, which have committed to the Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) to remove sustainability-related labelling from their products and websites and improve the use of sustainability statements in the future.
  •  Unilever’s cleaning brand, Persil, was also challenged by the Advertising Standards Agency for unclear environmental claims.
  • Coca-Cola, Danone, and Nestlé have also been accused of misleading consumers by claiming that their packaging is 100 percent recyclable. The complaint was lodged by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), supported by environmental groups Client Earth and ECOS, with the European Commission over the alleged “greenwashing” of these companies.
BBC News: What is greenwashing?
Wall Street Journal: Greenwashing: When Companies Aren’t as Sustainable as They Claim

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