What does greenwashing involve, and why companies might engage in this
Greenwashing is when a company deceives their consumers, using advertising or marketing campaigns, to believe that they are an environmentally friendly company, in terms of their products or the way that they operate. This has been around since the 1960s and started within the hotel industry. The overall aim is to persuade consumers that your business is doing a lot more to help the environment than they actually are. Companies do so in order to capitalise off of the climate change or sustainability movement as it attracts those who are interested in this. The demand for sustainable products is growing more and more. Additionally, companies may take advantage of greenwashing by using this to overcharge customers for products or services. This is because, they know a lot of people are willing to pay more when they believe it helps the environment.
However, if a company is found to be greenwashing, they could potentially receive backlash for this. Another consequence of this might be facing legal ramifications. This can really damage a business's reputation and brand image. As well as this, it has become increasingly difficult for consumers to know which companies they can actually trust. It also causes damage to the environment because some companies are more focused on trying to look environmentally friendly than actually working towards this. This stands in the way of authentic progress and making positive change in the world.
Types of greenwashing and how to spot it
One common tactic which a company might use that can be seen as greenwashing is using vague terminology. For example, describing their products or company with terminology such as '100% sustainable', 'organic', 'green', or 'eco-friendly'. This is usually false information and companies use them only to associate themselves with being environmentally friendly. If a company is genuinely 'eco-friendly', they would provide the details to back this up instead of using these vague terms. Also, true green products will often be certified by an official vetting organisation, and this is usually made clear on labels.
Another common tactic is using environmental imagery. For instance, when a company uses natural imagery like plants, farms, animals/wildlife, green packaging, etc. This could be with either packaging or advertising campaigns. These companies do this so that consumers will perceive them as a sustainable brand which in turn convinces them to purchase their products or services. Usually, products which are truthfully eco-friendly will use much simpler imagery and have plain packaging.
An alternative way in which companies may engage in greenwashing is hidden trade-offs. This is where you promote something as 'green' whilst ignoring and choosing not to share the other environmental impacts which it may have. For example, many companies promote the fact they use paper within their business to give the impression that they are making a difference in the environment. Although, part of the process of making paper involves greenhouse gas emissions.
Examples of greenwashing scandals
One company which has been called out for greenwashing in the past is Innocent Drinks. The brand was found to be misleading their customers through their advertisements. Innocent Drinks promoted an advert that was based on recycling. It encouraged consumers to help 'fix the planet' by buying their drinks. However, Innocent Drinks is owned by Coca Cola, who was found to be the most polluting brand in 2019 as they produce tonnes of plastic packaging each year. This advert deceived people into believing that they are making a positive impact to the environment when purchasing Innocent Drink products when this is actually not the case.
Another company who has been accused of engaging in greenwashing is the fashion brand, H&M. This brand was known for using sustainability labels such as 'conscious' and 'conscious choice' when referring to their products. However, they did not make an effort to describe what they meant by this and how their products benefit the environment. There was an investigation which looked into H&M's sustainability claims. Overall, it was found that 96% of their claims were indeed misleading. The company also gave the false impression that certain products were made with sustainable materials. Following this scandal, H&M donated 50,000 euros to a non-profit organisation which is associated with sustainability.
Volkswagen is another company that has been called out for greenwashing. In 2015, the company was found faking their emissions reports on several of their diesel vehicle lines. This meant that their vehicles were considered as one of the lowest emitters in the market and gave consumers the idea that their diesel vehicles are an environmentally friendly option. However, they produced up to 40 times more emissions than what was being advertised. In marketing campaigns, the company was even promoting the low-emissions and eco-friendly aspects of their vehicles. As a consequence of these findings, Volkswagen had to deal with a number of lawsuits, as well as billions in fines.