Reflection | Greenwashing

September 14, 2022

As the world begins to adapt more willingly to climate change, we have begun to see an increase in the use of ‘sustainability’ through marketing campaigns of almost every business – including big oil. But when businesses are putting more funding into marketing themselves as planet-friendly than actually tackling their environmental impact we begin to have a problem.

This problem is called greenwashing, and not only is it deceptive, but it’s actually accelerating climate breakdown. Sometimes it can be hard to identify, but that’s why we’re here… to show you how these sneaky industries are deceiving you on a daily basis.

So what is the definition of greenwashing? Essentially, it’s the process of presenting one’s organisation as environmentally responsible to the public, when that is in fact a lie. The pressure is building for businesses to cater to the increasingly environmentally aware market, and greenwashing is being used as a tactic to win customers and stakeholders whilst also deflecting from their lack of real change.

Greenwashing is still relatively new, but it is beginning to be recognised more and more, and it’s the big players in some of the most harmful industries that are leading the way in the global lie.

In 2019, InfluenceMap released a report that revealed the five largest oil and gas companies have spent more than £1 billion of shareholder funds to boast their ‘environmentally aware’ practices. The companies were found to be “maintaining public support on climate whilst holding back binding policy”. These activities were considered to be in direct contrast with the 2015 Paris Climate summit’s global goal to remain below 1.5*C in global warming. Their efforts to convince stakeholders of their progress is in fact just reducing the pressure on them to make significant climate-positive changes to their practices.

Greenwashing isn’t exclusive to big oil, and fast fashion brands have been quick to get involved in the movement of manipulation. Many fashion brands have set up environmentally aware collections, which have been criticised by environmentalists and some of the media. One of the biggest issues with these collections is a lack of transparency. Many markets their collections as ‘planet friendly’ because of the use of alternative or organic materials. However, they fail to provide substantial evidence on the environmental impact of the materials as well as the supply chain to back up their eco claims. In most cases, brands exclude information on supply chains simply because they don’t know the information themselves, and this can lend itself to a whole host of ethical and sustainability issues. Essentially, if you’re not being provided with much information on the clothes, where they came from and who made them, then there is probably little evidence that a brands ‘eco range’ is better for the planet than their alternative.

Investigating brands and identifying greenwashing can be easier said than done, however, and when big industries are using their big budgets and clever marketing campaigns to distract us from the real issues, it can be hard to know who to trust.

That’s why we’ve made a quick list of things to look out for when deciding if an organisation’s intentions are true or false.

Transparency.

For many years businesses have been prioritising profit over ethics and sustainability, and supply chains have become saturated with corruption and dishonesty. To tackle this, brands need to be honest about their supply chains, and they should be able to provide some form of evidence to let their consumers know where their products come from. If the brand can’t tell you where it’s shopping that’s a major red flag – and should be avoided!

Finance.

Big organisations like those mentioned previously in the oil industry have their fingers in many pies. Their influence is extortionate, with High Street banks, universities, local councils and businesses to name a few all investing in fossil fuels. This means you not only need to look out for banks but also organisations that invest in them. Where a business puts its money can be a good indicator of where it stands in terms of the environment.

Policy.

In our current society, businesses with the most influence are those that also make the most money, and the wealthiest industries are those with a focus on resource extraction. So, we are dealing with some of the most environmentally damaging businesses at the top, and they’re using their power to influence policy. If these organisations were really prioritising the environment, they’d be influencing policy change to protect our resources and slow down climate change – but they’re not. Find out where a business stands in terms of policy before falling into its greenwashing trap.

Marketing Techniques.

In marketing, language is used as a powerful tool to convince consumers that their product or service is the best. Marketers use words like ‘vegan’ and ‘natural’ to hop on the climate-conscious trend and stand out from their competition. However, many of these words don’t actually mean good for the planet. A product labelled as ‘vegan’ for instance won’t be made of animal products, but it will most likely be made with plastic instead. If it’s labelled ‘eco’ or from a more environmentally friendly range – that also doesn’t mean good for the planet. In many cases it will just be minutely less damaging than their normal products, so don’t let these sneaky organisations dupe you with their clever use of language. The same goes for other techniques like catchy slogans and the use of colours like green and brown in their advertisements. They’re trying to trick you – don’t let them.

When it comes to an organisation’s sustainability it’s all about its actions. If they’re a fashion brand, how many seasons of clothes do they go through each year? If they’re a fast-food chain, how much food do they throw away each year? Where is their food coming from? If they’re a bank, where are they investing your money? These are all questions we need to be asking ourselves every day. We live in a world where consumption is unavoidable, and we’re interacting with businesses all of the time. Where we spend our money is important, and businesses know that too. When we have the insight to look past greenwashing campaigns, we can be powerful players in reducing unsustainable and unethical practices.