Ever seen a product marketed as being good for the environment – in a plastic bottle?

Consumers are looking for sustainable options in their purchasing, and companies follow that trend. Sometimes the change is has an environmental impact, sometimes not. It can be hard to tell. When a company markets their products as sustainable but spends more on marketing than sustainable sources, or produces misleading marketing or packaging, or promotes their product as simply better than alternatives – that’s greenwashing.

Definition

Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Some Examples

Starbucks announced last year that they would ban straws and instead introduce a “sippy cup” lid. Turns out that the lids use more plastic than the straws and are unlikely to be better for the environment. But they got good press at the time of the announcement.

TIP: If you’re worried about straws then skip the straw/plastic beaker all together, and opt for a reusable cup. Starbucks and many cafés will make coffee in your reusable cup and may even offer a discount.

Walmart joined the sustainability trend, launching a “go green” sustainability campaign. Given that Walmart customers are price sensitive this was always going to be a challenge, and the report card is mixed. They’ve reduced foodwaste, and increased recycling of plastic. Their efforts to shift to 100% sustainable energy have so far (in more than 10 years) only got to 4% according to the EPA.

TIP: if you’re trying to assess claims look for agency reporting on data, and beware of percentage improvement, a move from 1% sustainable energy to 4% is a 400% improvement.

Coca cola – and other beverage companies – are working on “plant-based” plastics, that will be biodegradable. In some countries these bottles are already on the market, in some cases they’re still as much as 70% plastic, and about 80% of beverage containers still end up in landfill.

TIP: If you’re worried about this source of plastic stop buying drinks in single use plastic. Ask for tap water in restaurants, carry a water bottle from home (assuming you live somewhere with safe water).

In these cases the companies are trying to do something genuine, it’s just not easy to change people’s behaviour or build new resource infrastructure. These are not the worst examples of greenwashing.

Airbus took the skies in 2008 using the slogan “A better environment inside and out” for the Airbus A380, even putting on the planes’ tail. But air transport is a highly polluting industry, putting millions of tons of CO2 into the environment every year. Their argument seems to be that because of the scale of the plane less pollution occurs per kilo transported – true, but in the interests of honesty in marketing perhaps the slogan should be “not quite as bad for the environment as our old planes (which are still flying)”. Hmmm, not so snappy, needs work.

Volkswagen’s emission scandal which came to light in 2015 was possibly the most extreme example of greenwashing to date. Volkswagen not only made false claims about the emissions from their cars, the emissions devices in half a million cars themselves were modified to pass emission tests over a period of forty years. One good outcome, I suspect this scandal led to countries adding legal requirements for ecological claims to companies’ marketing.

Legal?

Probably not, most countries have advertising standards requiring that statements in an ad are verifiable. Some countries  -Australia, Canada, Norway, the US – have including requirements for companies to back their environmental claims with data the advertising standards.

Even so, as a consumer it’s worth keeping a cynical eye on claims of “greener”, “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, and “sustainable”.

 

Image via pixabay

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