What is it and why is it happening?

The term ‘Greenwashing’ was coined over 30 years ago in relation to the hotel industry who were making a lot of noise over washing towels responsibly but were actually trying to get more customers by ‘appearing’ to be green.  Three decades later and it is still alive and well - although slightly more sophisticated now. Like a whitewash, greenwash paints a ‘green’ (environmental, ethical, responsible or sustainable) sheen over a company’s products or services.

Typically, it is a company making a claim to sell more products

What exactly is it?

Everything these days seems to be 100% organic, natural, pure - but how true is it?  Here are some of the ways in which greenwashing can manifest itself: - Websites showing pictures of flowers and fields to mislead the buyer into thinking the company must be ‘green’ - Companies spending significant amounts of money on PR to show themselves as green whilst not spending any on changing their production methods - Using labels and awards which have no credibility - Highlighting that they don’t use certain chemicals but not mentioning the ones they haven’t got rid of - Using un-ethical production methods to produce ‘ethical’ products

Why is it happening?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been gaining traction over the past 30 years and most companies realise that in order to gain market share, win awards, qualify for standards & accreditations and attract the best talent they need to show that they have a social conscience - whether they want to or not. As the eco/green/climate-change movement adds a whole new dimension to CSR, shoppers are becoming more and more discerning about what they buy and its effects on the environment.  Companies realise that to gain (or maintain) market share, they need to jump on the bandwagon and give the impression that they are contributing to this new movement.

How can we spot it?

Be aware of the overly specific or extremely general.  Back in 2008, Fred Pearce wrote an article in the guardian which stated the following: ‘The green claims coming from corporations can be absurdly general. Nearly everything we buy these days seems to be "sustainably sourced" or "environmentally friendly". Sometimes, though, they are crazily specific. One train company declares: "Our trains emit 76% less CO2 than cars or domestic flights." But which cars, which flights, and how full are the trains?’

How can we avoid it?

1. Ask lots of questions. Those companies with a genuine interest will be transparent about what they are trying to do and the problems they face. 2. Look for specific targets rather than general statements.  Companies trying to make a positive change will be setting themselves measurable goals. 3. Bypass the Packaging and Read the Label. Don't be fooled by pictures of fruit, farms or any other faux-branding. 4. Beware of Branding… 5. Look for Proof of Green Practices… 6. Stop Trusting the Slogans… 7. Know What Being Green Really Means… Be aware of vague language and do some research.  Maybe the company producing your ‘green’ product is having it made in an unethical sweat-shop abroad.

Any major examples?

a. One of the most well-known high profile corporate examples of greenwashing failures include Volkswagen’s 7 year ‘clean diesel’ advertising campaign scandal, with a suspected 25,000 vehicles sold with cheating emissions technology. The US took the company to court for violating the Clean Air Act, settled with a $120,000 fine without admitting any wrongdoing. b. In 2018, in response to increased calls for banning plastic straws, Starbucks introduced a new straw-less lids that actually contained more plastic by weight than the old straw and lid combination.

Which companies are getting it right?

Many companies are really getting it right.  One of our favourites is Iceland - the budget frozen food company.

“Over 12 million tonnes of plastic enters the world’s oceans every year and the retail industry can no longer ignore the plastics tidal wave which is coming our way,” 

Richard Walker, managing director at Iceland

Iceland

Supermarket chain Iceland announced in 2018 that it would go plastic free and eliminate all palm oil from its own brand products.  They have dedicated significant resources to their environmental impact team who work closely with WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) and the British Retail Consortium Environmental Policy Action Group. Other areas they have been working on over the past few years are: Transportation, Carbon footprint and Refrigerants. As part of the reduced plastic initiative, Iceland have recently announced plans to bring back the traditional greengrocer with packaging-free fruit and vegetables as part of its efforts to eliminate plastic entirely by 2023.

The trial, which will launch in one of Iceland’s larger stores – The Food Warehouse in North Liverpool – will see 35 items sold loose and 27 lines sold in plastic-free packaging such as compostable punnets, paper bags and cellulose nets. The supermarket has also revealed that loose produce will be sold at a lower price than those that come in packaging in a bid to encourage take-up. All this and from a budget food retailer.

Here are three other big hitters making a difference, as identified by Virgin Group:

Ikea

IKEA has invested in sustainability throughout its entire business operations, including things customers can readily see and things they can’t. It starts with their supply chain, where the Swedish furniture-maker has sourced close to 50 per cent of its wood from sustainable foresters and 100 per cent of its cotton from farms that meet the Better Cotton standards, which mandate reduced user of water, energy and chemical fertilisers and pesticides. You can also see their commitment to sustainability at the store. IKEA has more than 700,000 solar panels powering its stores, and plans to start selling them to customers in the UK. In 2012, IKEA announced its goal to be powered by 100 per cent renewables by 2020 – but just four years later, it upped the ante aiming to be a net energy exporter in the same time.

Panasonic

Panasonic doesn’t get as many public accolades as many companies (something that Interbrand, which ranks companies on sustainability, calls the 'gap'), but it consistently wins high marks from experts. Like many companies on this list, Panasonic has ambitious energy goals, both in terms of efficiency and renewables, and it also focuses on making environmentally friendly products. What sets them apart is the way they’ve incorporated sustainability into their day-to-day life. It moved its North American headquarters from suburban Seacaucus, New Jersey to a LEED-certified building in downtown Newark by Penn Station, an intentional move to eliminate the need for employees to drive to work and reducing their carbon footprint. They’re also partnering with several companies to make a demonstration Sustainable Smart Town in Japan centred around sustainability.

Patagonia

A 2015 New Yorker profile called Patagonia’s corporate strategy 'anti-growth', a tongue-in-cheek nod to the retailer’s crusade against conspicuous and superfluous consumption. They’ve released ads encouraging people to not buy things they don’t need (even their own products) and implemented a program to repair rather than replace their products. Their commitment lies in their products – not just their messaging and marketing. Wetsuits are made of natural rubber and plastic bottles are turned into parkas. Patagonia also recognises the importance of political action on the environment and has made voting for eco-friendly leaders a cornerstone of its sustainability message.

Conclusion

Greenwashing may work in the short-term but with today’s discerning shoppers and the climate change movement being headed up by the next generation of consumers, it is not going to work in the long term. We are looking at a new emerging market led by corporations with the good of the planet at their core.