The Dirty Cycle of Greenwashing

Joanna Psaros

31 March 2021

That’s where your rubbish goes 👍

In 2017, US giant Walmart appeared to have taken a significant step toward sustainability through its sale of biodegradable and compostable plastic products. The impact of the world’s largest company by revenue (according to the Fortune Global 500), sourcing even a portion of its products in an environmentally ethical fashion, could not have been overstated. This was a symbol that corporations will listen to consumers, and that caring for the planet and pursuing the bottom line are not mutually exclusive- and it was a message that Walmart were not shy in promoting. “Over the last decade, we’ve become one of the most environmentally sustainable retailers (and companies) in the world and we’re raising the bar even higher,” boasted the company’s 2017 Annual Report. 

However, it soon came to light that Walmart’s public relations strategy was far more effective than an attempt to recycle their products would be. In a Californian district case against the company, it was found that the labels “biodegradable” and “compostable” were scientifically unsubstantiated. These words were likened to marketing terms- and misleading marketing terms at that. It seemed Walmart had been leaning on some handy corporate wisdom- why go green when you can greenwash?

Greenwashing, a term first used by Environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986,occurs when a company puts on a public front of environmental friendliness or makes token gestures towards sustainability without contributing to meaningful action. In other words, talking the talk without walking the walk. Greenwashing is often a cynical attempt for corporations, as with Walmart, to co-opt the environmental movement and capture the market share of eco-conscious consumers. An even more concerning motive is when the practice deliberately distracts from real ecological damage inflicted by a company.

Greenwashing does not just involve the blatant mis-categorisation of the unethical as ethical. Sometimes it can be more insidious- and thus harder to detect, avoid and prevent. Consider the number of companies whose marketing uses vague, feel-good allusions to nature and the planet while quietly lobbying against environmental regulations that impede business interests. Or the case of former BP CEO John Browne, who publicly called for ratification of the Kyoto protocol and famously champions corporate social responsibility despite refusing to stop drilling for oil in an environmentally endangered Arctic environment. These kinds of representations are not outright lies, but they paint a far from honest picture about the true ecological impact of their company’s actions. 

Greenwashing is quite rightly deplored as an opportunistic and hypocritical corporate practice. But it is not only an abuse of consumer rights. Regardless of its scale, greenwashing can directly harm the very cause it publicly supports to a far greater degree than mere inaction.

Imagine, for example, a popular clothing brand which markets itself as “the recycled clothing co.” and whose logo is a smiling mother earth. When fine print reveals that only the paper bags in which the clothes are packaged are recycled, public confidence in the legitimacy of environmental branding in general plummets and consumers become cynical and discouraged with the cause overall. Consider also the revenue or charitable donations that ecologically- conscious consumers would have brought to legitimate environmental companies and organisations had they not been misled into supporting a greenwasher.

In the context of high rates of scientific distrust by the public, the co-option of environmentally-loaded words by marketing creatives is a dangerous combination. When terms with specifical legal or scientific meanings (such as, it was found in the Walmart case, ‘biodegradable’), are used generically or manipulated to serve a commercial purpose they are robbed of their power and inspire confusion and apathy.

Greenwashing can be a sign a company is actually hurting the cause they purport to care about

So what can be done about this monumental problem? And how can individuals protect themselves from being ‘greenwashed’?

One of the biggest weapons against greenwashing is legislative enforcement and regulatory change which recognises the rights of consumers to be informed specifically in relation to environmental impacts. The good news is, this is a trend on the increase globally. Here in Australia, Clean Up Australia supports Federal Environmental Minister Sussan Ley’s National Plastics Plan which involves new labelling guidelines for plastic products.

Obviously the legal system alone cannot solve this problem. Some examples of greenwashing are too vague or subtle to be legislated against, and no matter how robust the laws there will always be those offenders who slip through the cracks.

Luckily, individuals have never been better placed to inform themselves when it comes to a company’s eco-friendly front. Exposure to the internet has, with good reason, made us far more media literate and less likely to accept purported facts at face value. These critical discernment instincts can easily be attuned to environmental messaging if we choose.

Additionally, smartphone technology has helped make fact checking second nature meaning that in theory at least, a CEO can be instantly held to account for the good deeds they boast about.

Not all information is public, and evidence of a serious environmental breach is likely out of reach of an ordinary consumer. But you don’t have to be Julien Assange. With the use of apps such as Good on You, which rates popular clothing brands 1- 5 stars depending on the corporation’s ethical practices throughout the supply chain, even a trip to the shops can be your protest against greenwashing and for real corporate environmental accountability. 

This article first appeared at CleanUp.org.


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