What is Greenwashing and how to spot it?

What is Greenwashing and how to spot it?

As companies adopt climate-friendly measures, it should be easier than ever to lower your lifestyle’s impact on the environment. But be careful, things aren’t always as they seem. 

As the Paris Agreement has made clear, keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C is vital to protect the future of our planet. To help achieve this, we must place sustainability at the heart of everything we do. One way to do so is by ensuring that the companies and brands we interact with are committed to environmentally friendly practices. Thankfully, many consumers are already considering the environmental costs of their choices, and two-thirds are now willing to spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. 

Now climate change is firmly in the spotlight, it seems organisations are finally taking note – you only need to sit through a short advert break and you’ll doubtless see examples of brands pledging to help prevent the crisis. With environmentally friendly measures increasingly adopted, it should be easier than ever to enjoy goods and services without worrying about your carbon footprint – right? Unfortunately, it isn’t always so simple.

Greenwashing describes a deceptive practice where brands and companies launch marketing campaigns claiming they are committed to fighting climate change but, this isn’t really the case. Instead, these organisations try to hijack the climate movement to attract customers and increase profits. 

For organisations guilty of greenwashing the claims in their campaigns may be false or deliberately misleading – buzzwords such as ‘green’, ‘eco’, and ‘sustainable’ might feature prominently but these rarely relate to any specific scientific standards. Equally, while many of these companies do contribute to environmentally friendly practices such as carbon offsetting, this is often outweighed by the cost of their campaigns!

Over recent years, accusations of Greenwashing have become increasingly frequent as carbon-intensive companies attempt to appeal to an increasingly environmentally-conscious consumer base. For example, in 2018, McDonalds announced it would no longer offer single-use plastic straws in its restaurants, with paper straws provided instead. By ditching plastic straws, the fast-food chain appeared to be addressing their high levels of waste. Yet, it was quickly revealed the paper straws weren’t recyclable either.

Similarly, in 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority banned an advert from Ryanair in which the airline claimed to be ‘Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline’. However, when the advertising regulator challenged Ryanair, they found the airline’s claims could not be substantiated and ordered the advert to be taken down.

When companies invest significant resources into marketing campaigns, it isn’t always easy to identify greenwashing. However, according to Ethical Consumer, there are four important questions to ask yourself if you think a company might not be being genuine.

What proportion of a company’s product is sustainable?

While companies might invest in low carbon products, it’s always important to weigh this against the negative environmental impact of their other services. For example, an energy company may well be investing in renewables but is this just to deflect away from their use of fossil fuels?

How do they define sustainability?

Companies may consider products or policies environmentally friendly, but this may not align with what consumers believe to be environmentally friendly. For example, oil and gas company Shell claims their energy to be 100 per cent renewable because they invest in green offsetting certificates. However, they continue to invest in unsustainable gas and oil which directly contributes to climate change.

How do they compare to companies in the same field?

Companies may claim to be leading the way in tackling climate change, but be wary, as the case of Ryanair shows, these claims might not be genuine. 

Are there any hidden trade-offs?

For companies whose business models revolve around unstainable practices such as extracting and burning fossil fuels, environmentally friendly policies harm their ability to increase profits. In these cases, environmentally conscious marketing is likely an example of greenwashing and not a reflection of genuine environmental concerns. 

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