The Harms of Corporate 'Greenwashing'

Greenwashing is a marketing practice of using deceptive marketing techniques to persuade consumers that an organization’s unsustainable products and vision are environmentally-friendly.

Greenwashing is a marketing practice of using deceptive marketing techniques to persuade consumers that an organization’s unsustainable products and vision are environmentally-friendly. It manifests in covering up products with green packing and “eco-friendly” labels. In reality, their product is just as harmful to the environment as the next - yet consumers fall into this trap time and time again. Hidden among those leafy logos peppered with flowery language lies a deceitful advertising gimmick to tout their clean energy or pollution reduction efforts via press releases and commercials.

The consumer landscape is littered with companies that have been accused of greenwashing, seemingly aligning themselves with pro-environment causes while violating environmental standards. From fashion and cosmetics to car and oil companies, corporate greenwashing is so widely and expertly practiced that it gets hard to distinguish genuine and sustainable products from the greenwashed and unsustainable. 

What exactly has led to corporate greenwashing becoming common practice? As people learn more about sustainability and climate issues, companies have tried to take advantage. Subsequently, products and marketing campaigns exploit the increased consumer interest in the environment by adopting the fluffy language and “pro-environment” images in their packaging and advertisements. It has also become a popular trend to invest in green projects – a proactive approach to support good causes because it makes a tangible difference. However, some companies have seen an opportunity to make money without real care or commitment to the environment.

As a result, there has been a sharp increase in the number of so-called environmental projects that have no positive impact at all. A prime example of corporate greenwashing is when Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting various vehicles with a “defective” device, with software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test and altering the performance to reduce the emissions level. To the public, the company was touting the low-emissions and eco-friendly features of its vehicles in marketing campaigns. In actuality, these engines were emitting up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants. 

Greenwashing also extends to more industries, including fashion. In April 2019, fast-fashion chain H&M launched its Conscious Collection, claiming that each piece in the collection was made from sustainably sourced materials, such as 100 percent organic cotton, Tencel, or recycled polyester. However, in late 2019 the Norwegian Consumer Authority (CA) called out the Swedish retailer for greenwashing, saying it did not provide sufficient information about the sustainability of the collection and arguing that the fashion retailer made general claims in the marketing of its products by not specifying the amount of recycled material for each garment.

Corporate greenwashing comes with many consequences in the long run - both environmental and societal. Leaving a larger carbon footprint, using more non-biodegradables, and polluting natural resources as well as depleting them are just some of the factors that lead up to speeding up climate change and contributing to global warming. When corporate greenwashing becomes the norm, the importance of ethical and sustainable businesses will be heavily undermined. Consumers would eventually forget the actual intent behind adopting “greener” products.

It is not an easy feat to spot greenwashing, but it does not mean that it is impossible. The first step is research. Of course, it is not very practical to look up every single product and verify its “greenness.” One way to make the process less daunting would be to explore websites or social media accounts of the products that are more frequently bought or those that promise environmental friendliness and sustainability. Perhaps taking a closer look at their claims and digging into the figures provided and how they were obtained would prove the company is truly ethical and taking legitimate efforts. Some key things to look out for will be if the manufacturing process is sustainable and if the product is free of toxic materials or ozone-depleting substances. To take it a step further, it is beneficial to check if the product is renewable and recycled after use. 

The next step would be to inspect and ensure that the companies do not use excessive packaging, which would cancel out any legitimate efforts to achieve sustainability. In addition, it is also important to do a quality check before purchasing to ensure that the product is designed to last long or be repairable. Thorough research and inspection would go a long way in spotting the greenwashers. It is not too late to find more sustainable alternatives and support businesses that genuinely make a difference!

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