Greenwashing – what is it and what are the consequences?

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What is Greenwashing?

“Greenwashing” was chosen for its similarity in meaning to the term “whitewashing”, which means to paint a wall white, covering over whatever was there originally. It also refers to the act of deliberately hiding or “covering up” information, often of a negative or sometimes even incriminating nature. Whitewashing is a term used most frequently in reference to corporate and political activities. Perhaps the most famous use of the phrase was when US President Nixon said “There will be no whitewash at the White House.” during the Watergate scandal in 1973.

Greenwashing refers to attempts to obfuscate or hide the less than environmentally friendly credentials of a company by choosing to tightly focus on a particular aspect of their behaviour that allows the company to be portrayed in a more positive light.

Examples of Greenwashing – Fast Food

An example of greenwashing would be a fast food company that chooses to emphasise the fact that their packaging is all made from zero-waste products while at the same time making no mention of the fact that their food products contain palm oil. Palm oil is used in a great many products including vegetable oil and its production is a major cause of global deforestation and clearly outweighs the good done by using sustainable products for their packaging.

The fast food company would be relying on the general public being unaware of the environmental cost associated with the continued use of palm oil. By choosing to focus on the sustainable products used in packaging they are making a conscious decision to direct consumer attention toward a more positive story for them. One that depicts them in a better way but does not necessarily reflect the reality of the situation. It is a form of misdirection, like a magician might use in a magic trick.

The use of biodegradable products in packaging materials does make a difference and should be welcomed but that is something that should be expected as a bare minimum these days rather than something to be applauded.

Examples of Greenwashing – Fossil Fuel

Another example of greenwashing is fossil fuel companies releasing advertising campaigns predominantly aimed at younger audiences which focus on their eco-friendly products and  low-carbon solutions and new innovative projects they are involved in. This takes attention away from the fact that they are responsible for some of the worst pollution in the world.

These companies are responsible for some of the most harmful emissions being released into our atmosphere, to the point we have a global climate emergency, are recruiting young influencers to showcase their green credentials and gloss over their core business practices which are incredibly harmful to the environment.

Nobody can reasonably object to companies showcasing their new innovations but when doing so gives the impression that they are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are, that can be misleading to the viewer and can feel dishonest.

Dangers Posed by Greenwashing

Normally if a good or service comes with a claim attached that turns out to be untrue, the company that sold the good or service would be accused of misselling it. Greenwashing is a similar concept. It enables a company to make a claim about its level of sustainability without actually fulfilling that promise and this gives consumers a false impression that there is a positive aspect to them purchasing that product. Greenwashing is also potentially dangerous as it embeds the status quo as being “fine”, and as being “under control”, because these large companies are able to spend a lot of money to give the impression that they are doing useful things when in fact it is just business as usual from their perspective.

There is work being done in the UK and the EU to bring in regulation that forces companies to consider sustainability in their practices. This will include references to data points which enable the objective analysis of a company’s true ESG factors. The hope is that consumers and investors will then be able to look at a company’s statements relating to ESG and be reasonably assured that these statements are being suitably assessed using independent metrics. This will hopefully ensure that greenwashing is less likely to occur in the future.

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