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Corporate "Greenwashing" is an Even Worse Problem Given Climate Change

False advertising, unsubstantiated claims and misleading imagery erode consumer trust

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Kindra Cooper

Corporate greenwashing

Corporate greenwashing is an epidemic. It rewards those who lie – or, shall we say, embellish the truth – while defrauding consumers for their share of wallet by claiming a nonexistent value proposition.

Ironically, car manufacturers, nuclear plants and oil companies pioneered it long before "climate change" entered the layman's vernacular.  

BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, released its first global ad campaign this year after Deepwater Horizon in 2010, the largest marine oil spill in US history. In the ad series, BP claims “we see possibilities everywhere” to embrace clean energy, touting its partnership with Lightsource, a solar energy company.

BP greenwashing

Clean energy investment constitutes just 3 percent of BP’s total capital expenditure – definitely not its core business – but from watching the ads alone, you wouldn’t recognize they’re from an oil company. 

In a recent report, Greenpeace admonished corporations for “falling all over themselves” to demonstrate eco-consciousness. 

“The average citizen,” reads the report, “is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.” 

Greenwashing is nothing new. Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term in 1983 to describe how oil companies like Chevron and electric mammoth Westinghouse spent millions on deceptive, glossy ads that cast oil rigs and nuclear plants as sources of job creation and clean energy. 

But now green labels have seeped into the CPGs we buy everyday, from detergent to clothing to burgers. Now, the onus is on the consumer to weed out the prevaricators from the true pro-environmentalists. 

From unsubstantiated claims to made-up seals 

Before you take any claims to sustainability at face value, remember that words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” have extremely broad definitions. Does it mean the product is fully or partially recyclable, carbon-neutral, biodegradable, compostable, reusable or organic? 

“Plant-based” could mean 0.01 percent of the product was made with some sort of plant fiber or plant fiber derivative – the term is vague enough for ample wiggle room. 

Read more: How Consumer Psychology Can Help You Understand Your Customers Better 

What’s more, many cities don’t have the infrastructure to support large-scale composting and recycling, so even if the company’s claim to greenness is true, it might not hold up in a real-life, non-marketing situation. 

For instance, Kauai coffee offers a “100 percent certified compostable” single-serve coffee product. However, not all items can be composted at home. If you look closely, the packaging’s fine print says: “Compostable in industrial facilities. Check locally, as these do not exist in many communities. Not suitable for backyard composting.” 

The Federal Trade Commission monitors environmentally-themed marketing for potentially deceptive claims. Since 2012, the FTC Green Guides have prohibited general environmental claims such as “green” or “eco-friendly” without substantiating language. 

So, companies upped the ante by inventing their own environmental accreditations. 

In 2017, the FTC approved a final consent order against Moonlight Slumber, a manufacturer of baby mattresses. The company made claims that its “organic” and “eco-friendly plant-based” mattresses had earned the “Green Safety Shield,” which made it look as though the product had been endorsed by an independent third party. In reality, it was a made-up logo Moonlight Slumber had bestowed upon itself. 

Read more: Sustainable Impact Investing - Reaching Today's Eco-Conscious Consumer

Fabricated seals of environmental friendliness are more common than you think, but they look far more legitimate at face value than merely sprinkling in adjectives like “plant-based” or “zero-carbon” into product descriptions. The FTC also accused two paint companies for affixing to their products the “Eco Assurance logo” and the “Green Promise seal,” which came straight from the imagination of the package designer. 

Beware the effect of “green” imagery on your subconscious

Even without using eco-friendly adjectives directly, companies can imply environmental stewardship using suggestive imagery – which, I would argue, is far more insidious than easily discredited PR claims. 

Corporate greenwashing

The bottled water industry profits from images of pristine lakes and beautiful mountains, despite being one of the world’s largest sources of plastic waste. In 2008, Nestle Waters Canada ran an ad claiming “Bottled water is most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.” More than 60 percent of water bottles end up as litter, landfill waste or harmful gases from incineration. 

Some industries just aren’t eco-friendly. Period. 

Tantamount to the hypocrisy of an oil company claiming to be an environmental steward is when fast fashion retailers purport to make “sustainable” products. The fast fashion industry is known for excess wastage given the rate at which we produce, consume and discard clothing. 

Fast fashion brands like H&M and ZARA employ cheap labor in unsafe working conditions in countries with lax environmental laws. This is how they churn out a high volume of cheap clothes to sell at a low price. The industry produces over 1 billion garments annually, and has exponentially increased the rate at which we buy – and consequently discard – clothes. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, what’s worse is when a fast fashion retailer purports to be eco-conscious – an oxymoron at face value.

Corporate greenwashing

H&M’s Conscious Collection is being investigated by Norway’s Consumer Authority, which states that marketing cannot contain “an incorrect or misleading representation which is likely to influence the demand for or supply of goods.” 

The only justification they give for the “Conscious” label is that they use “up to 50 percent recycled materials” (20 percent for cotton products). There are no details about what those recycled materials are, how they’re produced, nor the carbon footprint of the Conscious Collection compared to H&M’s other product lines. 

Read more: The State of Voice Advertising - Ushering in a New Era of Customer Engagement

In ads for the collection, models are surrounded by grass and plush green plant imagery, and the textiles used for clothing are in earthen colors made to look like expensive, high-quality linens.

Those brown napkins you get at quick-service restaurants like Chipotle aren’t any better than the white napkins they used to give us – they’re just greenwashed. 

Passing the cost onto consumers puts on the onus on individuals rather than corporations

Hyping up the importance of shorter showers, at-home composting and buying baby food served in glass jars rather than plastic puts the burden of climate change on the everyday habits of the average joe. It detracts from the polluting, wasteful ways of corporations that leave their lights on all night long. 

One night, I walked past a showroom for exotic cars in New York City on my way home one Friday night and I saw that not only was every floodlight switched on, but the headlights on the vehicles themselves were on as well. It was after 1am and the store had closed hours ago. 

Sometimes, companies also place a fiscal burden on consumers by charging a premium for supposedly eco-friendly products. Sure, the product might have cost more to produce, but when it comes to the airline industry, surely fuel efficiency should be the responsibility of the carrier and not the individual passenger. 

That’s not what Lufthansa thinks. In August, the German airline introduced a program called Compensaid, a “sustainability platform” which allows passengers to track their carbon footprint through a mobile app. Talk about guilt-tripping. Guilt-prone travelers can offset the emissions from their trip by purchasing Sustainable Aviation Fuel. 

Corporate greenwashing

The platform calculates the market-based surcharge depending on the journey. The carrier said “the SAF purchased as part of the offsetting process will deployed on Lufthansa flights within a period of six months.”

Oh, so you get to subsidize someone else’s flight so you don’t feel so bad about yours. Alternatively, you can choose to donate to a reforestation project in Nicaragua. The carbon offset comes at a steep price – the Associated Press reports. A single economy-class ticket from Frankfurt to New York is 374 euros more expensive if customers buy the synthetic kerosene.