The 2050 deadline to reduce global warming is getting ever closer, and consumers are increasingly interested in supporting companies working toward positive environmental change.
Businesses have been taking advantage of that phenomenon for years. Some stoop so low as to use marketing to appear environmentally conscious while changing nothing. Clothing lines marked as sustainable and cars touted as eco-friendly are flooding the market without any evidence to back up those claims.
How is the average person supposed to determine who’s making legitimate change and who’s deceiving them in a market oversaturated with “green” companies? Hopefully, as more businesses commit to true climate change, those who practice greenwashing will be exposed and pushed out for more favorable options, discouraging the practice altogether.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing can look different from company to company but refers to a marketing strategy that makes a brand appear environmentally conscious without changing much or at all. These businesses will often spend way more on advertising how eco-friendly they are than enacting environmental policies and often do more harm than good.
The term originated as a response to the Chevron energy company’s People Do ad campaign, which centered around beautiful nature scenes with wild animals. It created an illusion through imagery that it’s eco-conscious but did nothing to reduce its carbon footprint. It still hasn’t made any effort to adhere to the Paris agreement.
More recently, the fast-fashion company H&M released its Conscious Collection, advertising that this clothing line uses sustainable materials like organic cotton and recycled polyester. The Conscious Collection does indeed have sustainable materials, but it also contains more synthetic materials than the regular line.
Does greenwashing fool anyone?
With so many companies using greenwashing in their marketing efforts, you’d think it was an effective solution. Studies show greenwashing can improve public opinion of a brand’s environmental performance over those who do nothing and make no ecological claims. However, positive consumer opinion can turn quickly if these half-truths are exposed.
Also, it appears customers can tell the difference between companies who claim they’re eco-friendly and the ones that center on making measurable environmental change, which leads to increased sales for the latter.
A moral gray area
The earlier examples are cut-and-dry, but sometimes greenwashing is more challenging to spot. Some companies are willing to enact positive environmental change to divert attention from less than reputable practices.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, created a $10 billion Earth Fund that will go to supporting scientists and activist groups who can make legitimate changes to reduce global warming. That money will certainly make a difference, but the motivations are suspicious. Amazon was on the receiving end of negative press for how it dealt with employees demanding changes in the corporation’s lack of environmental policies.
Apple is another company that cashes in on the green effect. It claims it’s been carbon-neutral since 2020 and is working toward neutrality for all of its products by 2030. However, its efforts are negated by a business strategy that encourages replacing your technology each year to get the latest and greatest. E-waste is responsible for 70% of all toxic waste in landfills, and no amount of “carbon neutrality” can make up for that.
Raising the bar
The prevalence of greenwashing does come with one significant benefit. Since eco-friendliness is no longer a luxury but a demand for many consumers, companies are forced to make more substantial policy changes to keep up with the competition.
Any company can claim to be green or sustainable since those terms have no measurable definition. However, if every brand makes similar claims, then a business needs to make actual changes to stand out. This game of eco-leapfrog may encourage more progress.
Also, as consumers throw their purchasing weight behind companies that are transparent and are making changes across their entire business model, greenwashing could become an obsolete marketing strategy.
What can you do?
If you’re looking for ways to support brands making active, positive changes but are struggling to dig through the muck and marketing ploys, some simple research can help you make a more informed decision.
Generally, companies with global climate change as a core value will demonstrate that on their website. However, this is becoming a general practice for greenwashing brands as well, so check for transparency. Does the company have certifications or facts to back up its claims? Do its efforts go beyond legal requirements?
After doing your research, if a brand you typically use is telling half-truths or outright lies, consider switching to a company with more transparency. Support their efforts with your purchasing power.