What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when businesses spread false or misleading messages regarding the sustainability of their products or services.
This is done for the benefit of the company rather than for society or the planet, to accommodate increasingly strict government regulations and meet customer demands for green options.
The 7 Sins of Greenwashing
Greenwashing can appear in a number of different forms, with commonly identified types being referred to as the seven sins of greenwashing.
Hidden trade-offs, where a seemingly ‘green’ initiative has its own negative environmental consequences.
For example, Starbucks have planned to introduce new cups, boasting their removal of straws but failing to mention the fact that their strawless lids would use just as much disposable plastic as the combined straw and lid they had in the first place.
Lack of proof, where companies make claims about the sustainability of their practices without providing any supporting evidence.
Vagueness, which refers to the use of broad, undefined terms which imply to consumers that their product or service is sustainable. For example, consumers are often delighted to find products marketed as ‘all natural’, while organisations keep quiet on their use of unsustainable or harmful natural ingredients such as palm oil or arsenic!
Irrelevance is when companies make truthful claims which are not relevant to the sustainability of their product. For example, organisations may proudly state that their products are free of an ingredient which is banned or never used in that type of product anyway. Consumers may be confused and easily persuaded by a tin of peas labelled as ‘palm oil free’ despite the fact that none of the other tinned peas on the market (not fact-checked, but I hope we can assume!) contain palm oil either.
Lesser of two evils. This occurs when organisations put minimal sustainability initiatives in place while neglecting the wider issues of their market. One example might be a clothing brand boasting their use of vegan dyes while still mass producing t-shirts made from inorganic cotton grown with harmful chemical pesticides.
Fibbing, or as I prefer to call it ‘downright lying’. An infamous example of this is the Volkswagon Emissions Scandal where the corporation actively suppressed the true readings of carbon dioxide emissions on tested vehicles, granting themselves a ‘sustainable’ reputation while causing severe harm.
Worshiping false labels. False labels are phrases or symbols used by organisations which boast sustainable credentials but have been created by the company themselves and not verified by any third-party organisation.
For example, a company may advise that their products are cruelty-free on the grounds that they don’t test their final product on animals, but if they are officially certified with Leaping Bunny Certification then a third party assessment has taken place on all stages of their product development.
Evidently, greenwashing comes with a variety of consequences. Consumers are easily fooled into acting unsustainably, putting pressure on our planet and coercing them into a lifestyle which is misaligned with their values.
In extreme cases, such as the Volkswagon Emissions Scandal, greenwashing can lead to immediate and severe consequences for human and planetary health. In other examples, the negative effects of greenwashing are more gradual, but there is only so long that business can continue as usual, or even ‘slightly better’ than usual.
Should we Call Out Greenwashing?
A growing list of corporations are being called out on their greenwashing practices. By accusing companies of greenwashing, their malpractice and intentionally misleading messages are brought to light.
This puts such organisations to shame, and they must either improve their efforts or suffer the loss of reputation and potential boycotting that may occur. By placing the problem in the spotlight, it becomes unavoidable and new efforts must be put in place to readdress sustainability issues.
In addition, Governments may be encouraged to enforce stricter rules around investigation and regulation of sustainability claims. As things stand, organisations are often able to avoid intervention by claiming that they are doing perfectly well in their efforts to self-manage their responsibilities to people and planet.
While calling out greenwashing is productive in terms of increasing consumer awareness and allowing them to align their spending with their values, it may have unintended consequences for sustainability in the long run.
With the exception of ‘downright lying’, most types and examples of greenwashing do include some small measure towards sustainability. This has multiple implications.
For one thing, when greenwashing is successful, organisations will see the demand and value to be gained from sustainable initiatives. While they might not actually be supplying it yet, as more and more companies jump on the bandwagon, the business case for genuinely investing in sustainability will become more and more appealing.
Organisations which are publicised for greenwashing are often those who actually have the power to make changes in how we produce and consume. Consistent accusation may make such corporations increasingly fearful of even making an attempt at change.
In committing to and marketing based on their sustainable initiatives, organisations risk damage to their reputation, loss of custom, decreased financial support and even lawsuits.
In addition, they have to put extra time and money into re-framing their message and negotiating with protesters and activists. This is time and money that could be better spent on creating real, sustainable change.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, at the end of the day, even the biggest, baddest corporations are run by human beings. I must confess that I myself am guilty of mouthing off about ‘corporations’ without really considering this.
And don’t get me wrong, that anonymity certainly has its consequences, as one of the main reasons that businesses are so infrequently held accountable for their actions is the lack of individuals to place blame on.
But on the other hand, the people behind the label mean that there is human nature to persuade. Whatever the motivation behind greenwashing practices, the fact that there is some motivation means that there is a logical, rational system that can be appealed to.
In a recent survey of 500 UK businesses, 72% claimed that the recent Coronavirus crisis has made them reconsider their organisational sustainability credentials.
Accusations of greenwashing risk shutting down this discussion before it begins. In recognising the thought processes and changeability behind the strategy, we can argue the case for sustainability with people, rather than channel our complaints by criticising faceless names.
What is Green Hushing?
Less commonly discussed is the phenomena of ‘green hushing’.
Green hushing is essentially the opposite of greenwashing. It refers to businesses which decide not to mention or make a big deal of their sustainable initiatives in any of their messaging or packaging.
While this humble modesty may sound appealing, it has its own set of negative consequences.
Companies which are making real, sustainable changes can act as role models for other organisations, inspiring those within and beyond their industry to follow their lead.
Furthermore, when consumers are exposed to what sustainability really looks like, they gain a better understanding of what options they have, and what demands they can make.
Just as visibility of problems demands their solution, visibility of solutions raises awareness of problems. Without this visability, consumers and organisations have little to go on when defining their sustainability goals.
Why Would Organisations Engage in Green Hushing?
There is a number of reasons why companies might choose to under-report their sustainability initiatives.
For one thing, it can be very expensive to communicate about sustainability.
As discussed above, the rise in greenwashing has led to increased demand for thorough investigation and certification.
Doing this research and getting the data required for strictly assessed certifications is costly, making it particularly difficult for smaller businesses and start ups to feel confident that their efforts towards sustainability will hold up under intense scrutiny.
Secondly, communicating sustainability can result in harsh criticism from enthusiastic environmentalists.
Now, I do consider myself to be an enthusiastic environmentalist, and I imagine the business owners who are genuinely pursuing sustainability do as well.
But frankly, its near impossible to be perfect and the risk of criticism can be enough to discourage businesses from speaking out about their efforts.
This is particularly salient when you consider the fact that the vast majority of businesses have some form of external reliance, whether it be producers, manufacturers or even charities and third-party certification bodies.
It is always possible that malpractice is taking place somewhere within a supply chain, and, if such malpractice is revealed, even the most well-meaning business can find themselves plunged into scandal.
A third reason that businesses may choose not to represent their efforts towards sustainability is a feeling of shame over making money from doing good.
‘Marketing’ often comes with negative connotations to purpose-driven business owners, who may feel that selling products or services based on their sustainability is to constrain natural resources to capitalist thinking.
There is something to be said for this and, in an ideal world, all production and consumption would be making innovative progress towards sustainability due to genuine, passionate care for our planet.
Unfortunately, this is not the case, and by avoiding discussion of their progressive innovation, businesses miss out on the chance to put sustainability into the economic language that is easily understood by stakeholders.
By marketing their sustainability, business owners can make their case for the direct, measurable value that can be brought by such efforts.
When this can be described in terms of financial return, stakeholders can be encouraged to invest in sustainable businesses. Such investment would speed up the progress of the movement towards ethical industry and facilitate the development of new technology, infrastructure and other innovation.
How can we Find Balance?
At this point, I can only provide my personal thoughts on the matter of how businesses can best represent their sustainability initiatives.
First and foremost, companies must be fully transparent and honest about what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Being profit-motivated is not necessarily a bad thing, but in being transparent about it, organisations enable discussion with their consumers and other stakeholders about what money can be gained and what is expected in return.
Secondly, it is important to view sustainability as an ongoing process, rather than as a list of practices which are or aren’t being put into action. Businesses should be able to say “we’ve only done this so far, but we’re planning on…” without facing the outrage of consumers who tell them they aren’t doing enough.
In creating this space for sustainability as a process, businesses and their customers can work together to decide where additional effort and support is needed.
Truly well-intentioned businesses can gain support for their efforts, enabling further innovation, without fearing major backlash should they face setbacks.
Regulation and transparency should be made necessary throughout supply chains, holding corporations accountable and actively punishing malpractice. Certifications should be defined while also being made accessible and affordable to smaller businesses.
It is crucial that we continue to question the messaging we receive from organisations, and that we are able to spot green initiatives which are lacking in authenticity.
But it is also important to celebrate achievements and progress when they do occur, and to be open to the fact that businesses are capable of change.
Neither shouting nor silence will achieve results, what we need is discussion. Discussion provides space for perception, it provides space for progress and it provides space for passion.
I’ll leave you with those as my last words on greenwashing, green hushing and the balance we might find between them.
If you’re keen to learn more about social and environmental sustainability, you might be interested in the Waggle Dancers Sustainability Jargon-Buster, which lists over 65 concepts and definitions to help you suss out the issues, claims and promises of green business.
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