Know Your Climate Talk: What is ‘Greenwashing’?

The second article in our newst series ‘Know Your Climate Talk’, by Megan Tarbuck, gives a brief overview of a term derived from capitalising the demand for environmentally friendly products and practices, ‘greenwashing’. As the climate crisis intensifies its only natural for many brands and business to essentially ‘jump on the bandwagon’ as protecting the planet in our daily actions and purchasing becomes more integrated into the social norm. Greenwashing can also exist in the terms of big companies pledging environmental promises or championing environmental practices that aren’t as environmentally friendly as they seem.

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Missed the first article in this series? You can read first about ‘what makes a circular economy’ here!

It’s important to remember any attempt at becoming more environmentally friendly should never be discouraged, but it’s paramount for businesses or brands to remain transparent in environmental policy and to not partake in ‘greenwashing’.  Greenwashing isn’t a new term, in fact back in the 80’s, hotel chains were accused of ‘greenwashing’ under the scheme to save money on washing towels by encouraging their guests to think of the environmental benefit of not asking for towel replacements.

As this example highlights, overall the supposedly ‘greenwashed’ idea would of benefited the environment in saving water and energy, but only as a by-product of the hotel chains trying to save money (what they were accused of).

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Are policies as ‘green’ as they seem?

Greenwashing incorporates plenty of environmental jargon like ‘compostable’, ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ which people associate with being eco-friendly but their meaning can be skewed or used for effect on the consumer. Whilst greenwashing can have secondary benefits on the environment, greenwashed practices do not have the environment as their sole focus.

There are even a set of rules outlined in a “Selling sustainability report” which directly address the issue of greenwashing and how to avoid it:

  • Fluffy language 

No clear meaning in words or terms chosen

  • Green products v Dirty company

Low impact product made in polluting factory. Very ironic

  • Suggestive images

Green images to suggest low impact products

  • Irrelevant claims

Emphasis of one small green claim, when the rest of the product is inherently damaging to the environment

  • Best in class

Championing yourself as the best out of a bad bunch

  • Not credible

Greening of dangerous products like cars or cigarettes

  • Gobbledygook

Jargon and stats only scientific community could understand

  • Imaginary friends

Label including 3rd party endorsement which isn’t real

  • No proof

Complete lack of evidence

  • Lying

Fabricated claims or data

The whole report can be found here.

Greenwashing is a deceptive technique used to both attract an ever-growing environmentally conscious consumer base and to hide environmentally damaging aspects of a business or product with one small environmentally beneficial aspect. It’s our role as a consumer to be mindful in our purchasing and support of what are seemingly green ideas on the surface, but can turn into faceless claims in reality.

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Its important to look into the products you buy a little more… don’t get caught in the greenwash trap!

Whilst some companies use greenwashing and do end up creating environmental benefits there is still plenty of debate regarding whether or not some action in benefitting the environment is better than none at all. A good starting point to understand more about greenwashing practices is the Guardian’s ‘Greenwash’ list of examples for the UK. This includes examples on palm oil in supermarkets, the EU’s green logo being misused and many other illustrative examples.

Greenwashing is not a black and white concept, but the term helps us as consumers to hold businesses and governments to account over environmental claims that may not be as green as they seem.

Missed the first article in this series? You can read first about ‘what makes a circular economy’ here!

About the Author: Megan Tarbuck is the Lifestyle Editor for WILD Mag, she studies Human Geography and Environment at York.

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