“You have to hold yourself accountable for your actions, and that’s how we’re going to protect the Earth.” – Julia Butterfly Hill
By Arielle Tiangco
I have to admit, there was a time when I would shamelessly spend all my disposable income, from pouring smoothies at my part-time job, on fast fashion and other unsustainable products, like the makeup my parents would later forbid me to use.
Now, I say shamelessly because, if I’m being honest, it’s not like I’ve completely stopped buying products of questionable origin. However, due to the undeniable climate crisis that humankind has accelerated, and is now scrambling to figure out, I at least try to do my part by being as conscientious a consumer as possible.
When I do find myself at a cash register with a suspiciously plastic-wrapped sandwich, I lament it, I reflect on it, I shame myself for it even as I tap my card onto the magical paying machine. I usually end up consoling myself by blaming “the system” for my lack of will and viable options. I’m super busy and had no time to meal prep, I’d tell myself. A girl’s gotta eat, right?
I know I’m not alone in this struggle because these same troubling themes come up in conversations with friends, family, colleagues, and now with you, beloved readers of The Optimist Daily.
If you’re willing to level with me, most of you can probably remember a time when you didn’t think very much about how “green” the items in your shopping cart were either. That’s no longer an option. We’re bombarded by news of the climate crisis which makes it hard to deny our responsibility. Even if we avoid doom-scrolling, we, or people we know and love, are affected by windstorms, heatwaves, tornadoes, wildfires, flash floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events that force us to come to terms with the facts. Our actions impact the world we live in— which also means that our actions have the power to change it for good.
Fortunately, this positive mindset is reflected in shifting consumer attitudes. A 2021 Simon-Kucher study of more than 10,000 people in 17 countries revealed that sustainability has become a top priority in 85 percent of consumers’ purchasing decisions. It also made clear that consumers see themselves, along with for-profit companies, as the leading agents of change, also suggesting that consumer demands for greener products are an urgent call to action for companies to adapt.
This is especially true of Millennial and Gen Z consumers, who “are becoming a force to be reckoned with as they continue to represent a larger share of the consumer demographic,” says Shikha Jain, author of the study and partner at Simon-Kucher & Partners. “Companies that don’t have sustainability as part of their core value proposition need to act now to protect against future reputational impacts and loss of market share.”
Instead of giving their production practices an eco-conscious upgrade, entire industries have decided to skip the hard internal work of “greening up” their processes and supply chains. Many have gone straight to promoting a fabricated greenness with a mirage of distracting marketing ploys and cleverly designed labels to convince consumers that their products — nay, their entire brand — are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
This brings us to today’s topic: greenwashing in its many forms, how we as consumers can respond to it, and potential solutions to this pervasive problem.
Where did “greenwashing” come from, anyway?
While in recent years, the awareness of this intricate charade has certainly spiked, the practice is far from new. The term was coined by an undergraduate student named Jay Westerveld. While on a research trip to Samoa in 1983, Westerveld decided to make a surf stop in Fiji where he checked into a budget guesthouse.
At one point, he snuck into the nearby Beachcomber Resort to steal some towels and saw a message to the resort guests. The notice asked guests to pick up and reuse towels in the name of reducing ecological damage— noble enough.
However, Westerveld smelled something fishy. He was aware that the Beachcomber was constructing more vacation bungalows and was obviously in the middle of a grand expansion, revealing the resort’s true lack of care for coral reefs and the ocean in general. The appearance of concern for the environment would help the resort’s image, though, and its bottom line.
Years later, Westerveld remembered the towels while writing a term paper on multiculturalism and scribbled down a line like: “it all comes out in the greenwash.” This play on “whitewash,” meaning to hide or ignore unpleasant facts, caught the eye of one of Westerveld’s friends at a literary magazine. Eventually, Westerveld wrote an essay about it for the magazine, which had a wide readership in New York City. From there the term’s usage spread like microplastics.
It’s worth noting that just because the term became popularized in the 80s doesn’t mean greenwashing wasn’t already at play. For instance, an early trailblazer in the greenwashing movement is Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s nuclear power division, Mander, which, in the late 1960s, ran advertisements that showed the power plant tucked next to a beautiful lake and touted atomic energy as environmentally beneficial, “reliable, low-cost… neat, clean, and safe.”
While it was true that nuclear power generated less pollution when producing electricity than coal plants, Westinghouse failed to address environmental concerns such as nuclear waste and suspiciously spent eight times as much money ($300 million) on green advertising than on the anti-pollution research meant to inform their claims—a classic example of the sin of the hidden trade-off, one of the seven sins of greenwashing.
What are the seven sins of greenwashing?
Greenwashing comes in a variety of hues. It’s not just one shade of green fits all, which is what makes greenwashing such a challenge for everyday consumers like you and me to spot. One of the most popular tools in helping consumers evaluate sustainability claims is the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” which came out of a study launched by Canadian-based environmental marketing agency TerraChoice (acquired by UL Environment).
Sin of the hidden trade-off
When the “greenness” of a product is suggested based on a narrow set of attributes while paying no heed to other important, and related, environmental issues, like the nuclear power plant mentioned above.
Sin of no proof
If you’re looking at a product with a tag that makes an environmental claim, such as this shirt is made up of 80 percent recycled cotton but fails to back up said claim with any information or reliable third-party certification, then chances are you’re looking this sin right in the face.
Sin of vagueness
This is when a poorly defined term that has no true, standardized meaning and is thus likely to be misunderstood by the consumer, is slapped onto a product. You’ll find many of these examples in the fashion industry (vague is in vogue, I suppose) like when brands make broad claims of using “good” wool without explaining what good means.
The sin of irrelevance
The sin of irrelevance is when a brand or company makes a truthful claim but isn’t very helpful or important for consumers. For instance, the sin of irrelevance is at play when you see a brand tooting their own horn for not using toxic chemicals that are already illegal.
Sin of lesser of two evils
A quintessential example of this sin is an ad for “organic cigarettes,” which may truthfully be made of organic ingredients, but ignore the greater health or environmental impacts of the entire industry on the whole.
Sin of fibbing
This one is self-explanatory. It’s committed by companies or brands that make claims that are simply not true. Unfortunately, this sin is common in many animal products that claim to be “cage-free.” According to Farm Forward’s Ben Goldsmith, “the grim reality is that more than 99 percent of animal products come from factory farms, including products approved by welfare certifications or making claims like “cage-free” or “natural” on their packaging.”
Farm Forward goes in-depth on a sort of branch of greenwashing called “humanewashing,” which is the practice of exaggerating how humanely produced an item is. Read their full report on humanewashing here.
Sin of false labels
This tricky sin exploits the consumers’ desires for third-party certifications by using fake labels that look like the stamp of approval from a third party along with some green jargon like “eco-preferred.”
Why is greenwashing such a big deal?
Greenwashing is such an enormous issue because it breeds confusion and mistrust between the conscientious consumers and companies. This ultimately prevents the much-needed progress of sustainable design and circular economies.
Plus, when we think about the world of social media, an often hostile environment where phenomena like “cancel culture” put brands and people under close scrutiny, companies that do want to put forth a strong environmental stance might fear being called out for greenwashing. This growing trend of companies choosing to stay quiet about their environmental activities to avoid being accused of greenwashing is called the “green hush.” Keeping quiet about green progress only prevents the innovation and competition required to motivate other companies and industries towards environmentally beneficial practices.
Put simply, we need to prioritize the lives on this earth and the wellbeing of the planet above profit if we want to survive as a species, and greenwashing makes this impossible to accomplish. In such dire circumstances, there is no space for dishonesty and deceit because companies, businesses, governments, and individuals need to be able to work together and depend on each other.
So, what are some solutions?
An ideal that we should all be pushing for is for the standardization of environmental terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “all-natural,” “upcycled,” etc. Right now, greenwashing can be committed so easily because the green jargon used to communicate messages about environmental benefits isn’t officially defined, leaving their interpretation up to whomever.
While there are organizations out there that pertain to certain industries—like the Carbon Disclosure Project or Fair Wear Foundation that provide frameworks that fashion brands can follow—“it’s left to NGOs and third parties to try to hold brands to account, and some brands just don’t engage” says Ilishio Lovejoy, project manager of the fashion activism movement The Fashion Revolution. This “is why mandatory legislation [about green terminology and production standards] is so important.”
Luckily, strides are being made in the UK as the nation’s Competition and Markets Authority is now cracking down on greenwashing by investigating UK fashion firms that claim to have “sustainable” practices and “eco-friendly” products. The CMA will compile a public list of the most deceitful brands and will take repeat offenders to court. Hopefully, other governments will follow suit.
As for progress in other industries, last year, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee in the Netherlands also put its foot down on Shell’s fossil fuel greenwashing ad campaign, halting ads that tell customers that they can make their fuel purchases “carbon neutral” through carbon offset payments.
While these developments are encouraging, governments must have a heavier hand if greenwashing is to ever be controlled and adequately monitored. As of now, it still feels a bit like the wild, wild West, where anything goes as long as you don’t get caught or publicly shamed.
What can we do as consumers?
Combatting greenwashing as an everyday consumer is a tall order. The solutions discussed above must be enforced by the governing systems, over which we may feel we have minimal control. That said, we can always contact our local representatives and let them know that we believe it should be a priority to standardize green terms and criminalize greenwashing.
Another powerful way we can combat greenwashing is to engage with the brands that you’re interested in. Though social media has its faults, it also allows us to speak directly with huge companies and ask them to provide specific proof for the green claims they make. You can send private emails with your inquiries, or even comment publicly on their Instagram posts.
Demand clear, precise answers, and complete transparency. This will let them know that you will not be convinced by flimsy, vague statements. Plus, these online interactions have the power to catch the eyes of your peers and perhaps inspire them to support you with “likes” and “replies” to your comments.
And finally, one of the most powerful ways we can combat greenwashing is to educate ourselves on the ins and outs of it in the first place (like what you’re doing now!) and continue the conversation about it. As more people become aware of how vast and tricky the problem of greenwashing is, the less money will end up in the hands of brands that put their profit before our planet, and more of our valuable support will be rightfully funneled to the innovative and environmentally centered companies that will help propel us toward a cleaner, greener, and more optimistic future.
“It is not reasonable to expect consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase when ‘humane-washing’ tactics have been so pervasive and so successful. The responsibility for raising animals in ways that align with consumers’ expectations should lie with producers, retailers, and the groups that regulate and monitor them.”
-Ben Goldsmith/Farm Forward