Greenwashing

Author
Alex Bingham
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Greenwashing meaning

Greenwashing is a term used to describe the deceptive use of marketing to promote a product or service as being environmentally friendly when in reality, it is not. It is a form of false advertising that misleads consumers into believing that a company or product is more environmentally responsible than it is. Greenwashing takes advantage of people's desire to make eco-friendly purchasing choices and is unethical for businesses.

What are the three main types of greenwashing

1. Hidden Trade-Offs: Companies often use greenwashing to detract from their environmental impacts by emphasising the benefits of their product or service while omitting any negative information. 

2. Vagueness: Companies use vague language to describe their product or service, making it difficult to determine the true environmental impact. 

3. No Proof: Companies claim to be "green" or "eco-friendly" without providing any evidence to support their claims.

What are the 7 sins of greenwashing

1. Hidden Trade-Offs: Making claims that only tell part of the story. 

2. No Proof: Making claims without providing evidence. 

3. Vagueness: Making broad, vague claims that are challenging to verify. 

4. Irrelevance: Making claims that may be true but are not relevant to the product's environmental impact. 

5. Lesser of Two Evils: Making claims that may be true but distracts from the product's or company's more significant environmental impacts. 

6. Fibbing: Making false or misleading statements. 

7. False Labels: Companies that use false labels, certifications or seals to suggest a product is green when it isn’t.

What are greenwashing examples?

  • A company advertises its products as "all-natural" or "eco-friendly" when made with toxic materials. 
  • A company claims its packaging is recyclable when in reality, it is not. 
  • A company claims all of its products are organic when some do not meet organic standards or certifications.
  • A company claims to be carbon neutral when they have not taken any steps to reduce its carbon footprint. 
  • A company advertises its products as "sustainable" when they are made with unsustainable practices.
  • Using fake certifications or labels gives the impression that a product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

Why is greenwashing a problem

Unfair to others: greenwashing can take away from companies and products that are actually making a real effort to be more sustainable.

False advertising: greenwashing involves making misleading or unsubstantiated environmental claims in marketing, advertising, or other promotions. 

Undermining progress: Companies may use greenwashing to avoid making actual changes to their practices. This can be problematic as it prevents progress and may even lead to decreased sustainability efforts. 

Confusing consumers: By making false claims, companies can cause confusion among consumers. This can make it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions and lead to them spending money on products that are less beneficial to the environment than they think. 

Unethical business practices: Greenwashing is an unethical business practice as it misleads customers into believing that the business is more environmentally responsible than it actually is. This not only harms customers but also harms the environment by discouraging them from making more sustainable choices.

Wasting resources: Companies that engage in greenwashing may waste valuable resources such as energy and water in order to promote their false claims of environmental friendliness. This can be detrimental to the environment and negatively impact the company's bottom line.

Greenwashing companies

Coca-cola has faced criticism for its record on sustainability. For example, they have used packaging with environmental-friendly messages while the actual product is highly unsustainable. They have also been accused of using the term “sustainable” to describe their packaging when it is actually made from plastic or aluminium, both of which are not considered to be sustainable materials. Additionally, Coca-Cola has been called out for misleading consumers about its commitment to sustainability by making vague claims about its efforts and not providing concrete details about its initiatives.

McDonald's has been accused of using marketing techniques to make its products seem more environmentally friendly and healthy than they are. This includes using terms like "sustainably sourced" and "all-natural" to describe its ingredients and to promote initiatives like its switch to paper straws.

Starbucks has been accused of claiming that its coffee is sustainably sourced when in reality, much of the coffee it sells is not certified as sustainable. Additionally, Starbucks has been accused of using misleading imagery and language to suggest that its products are more sustainable than they are.

Fiji Water has been criticised for the company's claims of sustainability, the amount of plastic used in its packaging, and its water-related impact on local communities.

Nestle has been accused of greenwashing in the past, but it has made efforts to reduce its environmental impact. The company has committed to achieving zero-net emissions by 2050 and has invested in several initiatives to reduce its water consumption, agricultural waste and packaging. Additionally, Nestle has launched initiatives to reduce its carbon footprint, such as its Cocoa Plan, which works to reduce deforestation.

How do you spot greenwashing

  • Look for broad and vague claims: Companies that make broad and vague claims about their environmental initiatives without providing specific information should be viewed with suspicion. 
  • Check for third-party verification: Third-party verification is an excellent way to ensure that a company is taking the steps they claim to be to reduce environmental impact. 
  • Consider the company's actual practices: When assessing its sustainability, it is essential to look at its existing practices, not just its green messaging. 
  • Check the company's use of green labels: Companies often use green labels to make their products appear more eco-friendly. Companies may rely too heavily on labels and certifications without providing meaningful product information. It is essential to look beyond the labels to see if the product is eco-friendly.
  • Focus on process over results: Companies may need to demonstrate the results to emphasise their processes and procedures clearly.

What brands are not greenwashing

Companies can demonstrate that they are not greenwashing by taking the following steps: 

1. Being transparent about their environmental practices and progress. Companies should be honest and open about the environmental impacts of their activities and their plans for reducing those impacts. 

2. Taking action to reduce their environmental footprint. Companies should make fundamental changes to reduce their environmental impacts, such as investing in renewable energy, reducing single-use packaging, and switching to more sustainable materials. 

3. Show supporting independent verification. Companies should seek third-party confirmation of their environmental claims and practices by organisations such as the Green Business Certification Inc. or Green Seal. 

4. Keeping their environmental claims specific. Companies should avoid making vague claims about their environmental performance, such as "we are eco-friendly" or "we are green." Instead, they should make specific claims about their environmental practices, such as "we use 100% renewable energy." 

5. Educating their employees. Companies should ensure that all employees understand their environmental commitments and are empowered to make sustainable decisions.

Examples of non-greenwashing brands

Patagonia generally avoids greenwashing by using rigorous standards and independently verifying its environmental claims. For example, Patagonia has been a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition since 2011, and its products have been awarded the bluesign® standard, which requires a comprehensive approach to sustainability. Additionally, Patagonia actively works to reduce its environmental impact by incorporating sustainable materials and processes, such as using recycled materials and committing to fair labour practices. 

Seventh Generation's commitment to transparency helps it to avoid greenwashing. The company is transparent about its ingredients, processes, and materials, making sure to source responsibly from suppliers who meet its standards. It also uses third-party certifications such as the EPA Safer Choice, USDA Organic, and Rainforest Alliance to prove the sustainability of its products. Additionally, it provides detailed information about its products on its website, including information about the environmental impact of the production process. Seventh Generation also conducts regular lifecycle analyses of its products to ensure they are produced in an eco-friendly manner.

Fonterra: Fonterra does not greenwash by being transparent about its environmental initiatives, taking responsibility for its environmental impacts, and providing accurate and up-to-date information about its environmental activities. It also takes steps to reduce its ecological footprint, such as reducing water and energy use, investing in sustainable farming practices, and investing in green technologies. Additionally, Fonterra has a public commitment to sustainability and works with third-party organisations to verify the accuracy of its claims. Fonterra has a thorough sustainability report accessible to the public providing detailed information on its actions and goals. 

Air New Zealand does not greenwash by being transparent and honest in the way they communicate its efforts to reduce its environmental impacts. They use facts and figures to back up their claims and make sure that their customers and stakeholders are aware of what they are doing to be more sustainable. They also communicate their progress and any areas of improvement they need to focus on. This helps to ensure that their customers and stakeholders can make an informed decision about their commitment to sustainability. Air New Zealand has published a comprehensive and insightful sustainability report demonstrating transparency on how they plan to achieve its goals. 

NZ Post is committed to sustainability and eco-friendly practices. They have committed to reducing their carbon footprint and have implemented various initiatives. These include carbon-neutral delivery, providing recyclable packaging, and using renewable energy. NZ post has committed to being carbon neutral by 2023 and has published its carbon reduction plan. 

 

What to do to avoid greenwashing?

  • Research any product or company before you buy. Read reviews, check the company's website, and look for independent certifications. 
  • Ask questions. If a company can't give you clear answers about their sustainability practices and standards, it's a red flag. 
  • Look for third-party certifications. Look for certificates from trusted organisations in NZ. 
  • Consider the entire lifecycle. Don't be fooled by "green" claims that only consider one part of the product's lifecycle. Consider the whole lifecycle from production to disposal. 
  • Buy from companies that commit to sustainability. Seek out companies with a track record of sustainability initiatives and are transparent about their practices.

Summary

Greenwashing is a problem that affects consumers and businesses alike. It is important to be aware of greenwashing and to be wary of companies that are making false claims about their environmental efforts. It is also important to support companies genuinely committing to sustainability and recognise their efforts. Although greenwashing is a difficult problem to combat, it is possible to make informed decisions and become more knowledgeable about the companies you choose to support.

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