It’s up to us to call out greenwashing

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Greta Thunberg, perhaps the most high-profile climate activist in the world, won’t be at COP27, the United Nations flagship climate change summit, at which countries around the world plan how they will reduce or manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

It starts in Egypt on Sunday, and Thunburg says she’s skipping it because “it’s an opportunity for greenwashing, lying and cheating”. Protest is illegal in Egypt, so the opportunities for the usual activism will be limited.

Greenwashing is when an entity, usually a large corporation, makes unsubstantiated claims that they are environmentally friendly and sustainable.

It’s a marketing strategy as opposed to a real fact. The coin was termed by environmental activist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s. He stayed in a hotel where a sign requested guests to re-use towels to help save the environment. He said that since the hotel took no other steps to help the environment, he believed it was simply trying to save money by washing fewer towels.

The fashion industry is often accused of greenwashing. Make-up products are sold as eco-friendly, and the testing of products on animals is a big no.

Faux leather and faux fur are on trend. But sometimes things that are sold as “green”, “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” aren’t quite what they seem. In a social media post last year, Thunberg called for a system change.

“The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate-and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposables.”

The reality is that the fashion industry is responsible to 10% of human generated carbon emissions, and is the world’s second largest consumer of water (according to Global Citizen).

Another classic example was the Volkswagen emission test scandal.

VW admitted to fitting vehicles with a ‘defect device’, which contained software that could detect when it was undergoing an emission test, and reduce the emission levels to essentially give a false result. At the time, the company was touting the vehicles low-emissions and eco-friendly credentials.

Coca-Cola have come under-fire for trying to maintain they have an environmentally-friendly commitment, when the company is in fact the largest plastic polluter in the world. And they have stated they have no intention of doing away with their plastic bottles. The greenwashing goes deeper – Coca-Cola is one of COP27’s major sponsors.

Starbucks made a big deal of its “straw less lids”, which were proven to contain more plastic than the previous lids and straws combined. McDonalds advertised paper straws, that turned out to not be recyclable. Oil companies like BP use the fact that some of their petrol stations run on solar as proof they’re eco-friendly. Very few coffee companies can back claims that coffee pods are recyclable. At best they are re-usable.

Companies often market themselves as allies to environmental causes, when in reality they are anything but. This was proven in a number of campaigns that were linked to the last climate summit, COP 26, in Glasgow last year. The food industry is guilty of talking about ethics in its farming methods, but still sells its products in plastic packaging. Banks that support sustainable causes also lend money to the fossil fuel industries.

The key to not becoming a victim of greenwashing is to look deeper.

There are buzz words, like “vegan”, “conscious” or “recycled”. But look carefully at how, of even if, that company can actually justify the claim. Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to see if the company is verified by a third party.

Companies like Plastic Rebellion and Earthsight check the claims, as do the Advertising Standards Authorities if they receive a complaint.

Greenwashing is difficult to fight. Outright environmental deception is illegal in the US, and the European Union is currently looking at ways to make it illegal.

At the moment it’s up to the consumer to make sure that products that are priced higher because they claim to be eco-friendly are really what they say.