The old adage ‘the customer is king’ or ‘the customer is always right’ might make you believe that a company’s most important value is to treat their clientele with respect. But over the years many retailers and manufacturers around the globe have cheated their customers to boost their revenue and in the process were accused of ‘greenwashing’. But what exactly is greenwashing, and how can consumers be more vigilant and avoid falling for these deceiving tactics that seem to sprout every so often on the market?
The Oxford dictionary defines greenwashing as ‘the creation or propagation of an unfounded or misleading environmentalist image’. In simple terms, it involves making unsubstantiated claims to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly or have a greater positive impact on the environment than they actually do.
You might remember the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015, where the German car manufacturer was found to have installed ‘defeat devices’ on diesel engine cars. The devices – installed on 11 million VW-manufactured vehicles worldwide, detected when the cars were being tested, changing their performance accordingly to improve emission results. This is a classic example of greenwashing: keen on tapping into the growing pool of consumers interested in affordable low-carbon transport, Volkswagen deceived the public with fake emissions reports, branding its new line of diesel vehicles as one of the most environmentally friendly options in a huge marketing campaign. But the truth eventually came out – the cars were found to produce up to 40 times more emissions than advertised.
A prime greenwashing example involves purposefully using imagery of nature in advertising or on packaging. Companies use photographs and graphics of trees, forests, plants, leaves, flowers, as well as text in the colour green on their website and their product packaging to fool customers and appear more environmentally friendly to them.
Greenwashing may occur when a company attempts to emphasise sustainable aspects of its products to overshadow its involvement in environmentally damaging practices. An example would be technology promoting energy efficiency without disclosing hazardous materials used in manufacturing. Some industries are particularly good at this – the fossil fuel industry has often rebranded itself as ‘green’ and environmentally friendly by pushing the idea of ‘clean coal’ promoting natural gas as a sustainable energy source, and creating tokenism campaigns such as tree planting initiatives in the community.
Companies may also use false, misleading labels with ‘sustainability’ certifications to create an illusion that their products or services have been independently certified by a legitimate third-party. Generally, beware of ‘100 per cent organic certified’ and ‘energy efficiency certified’ labels – look for reliable sources of certifications such as the ‘GOTS’ label on pieces of clothing, the European leaf logo on organic food and gardening products, and the colourful A-G rating on electronic devices.
Environmental claims that are broad or unfounded have been used by companies to make themselves look better to the public. The ASAI in 2020 held that a claim by Ryanair that they were “a low C02 airline” was misleading. And last summer, Land Rover was told by the Advertising Authority of Ireland to stop running an ad featuring Irish celebrity gardener Diarmuid Gavin who was driving around in an SUV praising the vehicle for ‘planting the seeds for a more sustainable life’ despite burning fossil fuels with a three-litre engine. Such misleading claims could encourage unwitting consumers to fly abroad every weekend and buy large SUVs with the belief they are doing good for the planet. And let’s face it, SUVs just like airplanes are not the answer to a greener lifestyle.
Another greenwashing tactic is called the ‘bait and switch’. This is when a company heavily promotes a limited line of eco-friendly goods to attract ecologically conscious consumers. Once the customer is enticed by the products, they are presented with an extensive range of goods that are not eco-friendly. There is also the use of vague terminology on products which doesn’t mean anything in terms of a company’s manufacturing process or its adherence to environmental policies. Players in the clothing industry make use of such language with phrases like ‘close the loop’, ‘a conscious choice’, and calling their products ‘sustainable’ despite their clothing being made of synthetic materials. Brands like the Swedish giant H&M offers its customers the opportunity to bring their old, no longer wanted clothes back to its shop for recycling; it could be looked at as a way of inducing customers to buy more. In fact textile recycling barely exists (only 12 per cent of textiles are recycled globally). In fact, what the fashion industry calls ‘recycled’ is mostly downcycled to lower value products or shipped around the world to low-income countries, where a large portion of it (an astronomical 85pc) ends up in landfill.
I’m tempted to also mention Coca Cola, the largest plastic polluter on the planet, greenwashing us with ads claiming they are committed to reducing plastic waste, and encouraging people to recycle their bottles. What a lot of… garbage!
Greenwashing is an attempt by companies to capitalise on the demand for environmentally sound products. Ultimately, it has negative consequences for us all and the environment, so it’s vital we call it out for what it is: a deceitful and unethical practice. My advice is to always be sceptical of brands that claim to be green without the proper credentials, and to check whether a product lives up to its advertising. Vote with your wallet and support companies that inspire confidence. Only by remaining vigilant will we avoid being swayed by claims that promise the world.