The sustainable movement is experiencing growth, with more consumers demanding “better”. But there are two sides to the story, and many brands are taking advantage of the “sustainable” buzzword to push products that are doubtful to be eco.
When one thinks of greenwashing, what initially comes to mind? Images of doing a particular, very unique round of laundry perhaps. But sadly, the reality of what greenwashing represents is far different, and more pressingly, far more challenging.
Increasingly, sustainability is becoming mainstream, with growing numbers of consumers, especially those of younger generations, expressing a willingness to purchase eco-friendly products – even if means it being more costly. Source
However, with good intent, also comes the questionable and deceptive intent. Specifically, that as more consumers look to purchase sustainably sourced products or support green initiatives, some brands or companies are taking advantage of these changes to manipulate consumers and increase their profits.
Greenwashing a global issue
Now, greenwashing is an issue globally, including in the US or Europe.
But the more significant concern is within developing regions, where education, access to information and more impressionable or impoverished communities could be targeted for opportunistic businesses.
Considering that, this article discusses greenwashing in developing and poorer communities and the ways it could be addressed.
What is greenwashing?
The term greenwashing was first coined by the environmentalist, Jay Westervelt in 1986.
It derived from the process where hotel chains were placing placards in hotel rooms to encouraging guests to reuse towels with the false claim of it as part of their efforts to implement greener policies.
Yet, it actually related to the hotels saving on laundry and energy costs. Source
Also, known as ‘green sheen’, the concept is a play on the phrase whitewashing which mean the covering up or glossing over details with the intent of being disingenuous or at the very least not fully transparent.
So, when concerning eco-friendly products and sustainability, greenwashing is when a company purposely misleads consumers with their environmental claims.
A common example is when companies and producers use certain buzzwords or phrases in their marketing to emphasize certain features or benefits a consumer will obtain by using their products.
This frequently happens in the food industry.
Labels like ‘organic’, ‘GMO-Free’, ‘far-fresh’ and so on, appear to be ethical and eco-friendly but are simply embellishments or vague claims that play on the conscious or principles of some consumers in the name of sales.
However, in nearly every case, any of the company’s claims will be unsubstantiated or lack the verified labeling, such as a Certified Fairtrade International.
And so, with respect to advanced economies or wealthier communities, there is some reassurance that certifications will be independently verified by government agencies and non-profit associations.
Some solid phrases or logos to look out for include:
- USDA Organic
- Certified Humane
- Non-GMO Project Verified
- Certified Fairtrade International
But what happens when your part of a society that potentially lacks accountable and independent agencies or facts that can be considered transparent?
Why is recognizing greenwashing important?
So, increasingly, more attention and priority are being given towards sustainability-related issues in areas like the US, Europe, and Australia.
This then helps more people become more capable of recognizing signs of greenwashing among the products and companies that they consume.
However, this also means that it is harder to ensure poorer and developing communities are in a similar position, underlining the privilege wealthier communities hold in avoiding products that are possibly detrimental to their welfare.
It becomes a vicious twofold cycle as wealth inequality not only increases between developing and developed communities but also with an increasing imbalance between each’s level of welfare.
Let’s consider food labeling again. Greenwashing will disproportionately affect more impoverished communities by:
- Preventing them from being able to access or afford better quality produce results in higher economic inequality while also reducing people’s overall productivity;
- The food that pooer groups can afford or access will be of a lower nutritional value due to all the undesirable additives or preservatives which then worsens people’s health and wellness.
And it goes beyond an individual or micro level. On the macrolevel, while populations from wealthier countries are some of the biggest advocates for sustainability or are innovating new solutions, it is the developing countries that actually need those solutions the most. Source
They need assistance, the technology and investments that emerge from industries like ecotourism, to have any chance of developing their economies and improving people’s livelihoods.
But then this results in developing countries having to take out loans or grants to speed up reaching their goals of being greener economies.
Indeed, within Brazil, categorized by the World Bank as a middle-income country, there has been a nearly 600% rise (from 400 to 2300) in the number of products claiming to be green in only 5 years. Source
Yet, that is not the whole story. A study from 2012 emphasizes that while entire industries play one part, it is also essential to consider the behavior of individual companies as well as their style of marketing campaigns to engage with civil society. Source
In other words, while a country, its policies, and the public sector might flow in one direction, the private sector and individual companies (with their own vested interests) may flow in the opposite.
This was evident within the Brazil example, where the increasingly pushy marketing by some companies became counterproductive with a growing skepticism among Brazilian consumers on the honesty of the environmental claims. Source
How to observe greenwashing brands?
A simple case of less is more sometimes. Truly eco-friendly products made by genuinely sustainable companies will not seek to overhype the fact their products are eco-friendly.
Naturally, companies still need to be profitable to give them a purpose – which requires effective marketing. But equally, greener brands care as much about their environmental cause as any profit and so will allow the quality of their products to ‘do the talking’.
They will also promote any satisfaction from customers to act as verification for how beneficial the product is for them as much as the environment.
And since greenwashing is about misdirection, being informed quickly becomes a critical counteracting weapon.
But how should greater awareness be achieved? What strategies are possible?
Is it possible to combat or eliminate greenwashing?
Firstly, no, it will never be 100% possible to eliminate greenwashing completely.
Simply because the most common cause of greenwashing is actually accidental.
In most cases, when a new startup begins marketing and selling its new product or service, or an existing company looks to reorientate some of its merchandise to be greener, they may inadvertently engage with greenwashing. Source
But this is from unintentional and lack of knowledge, making it easily fixable.
So, when considering how to counteract greenwashing, improving the education of consumers and suppliers is one of the best strategies.
Certainly, when helping developing communities and poorer groups to avoid greenwashing, educating local populations to identify standard practices, such as marketing campaigns is a fundamental step.
As consumers, people have the power to determine what products and companies are successful compared to others which are not.
It’s the classic case of supply and demand.
Without the demand from consumers, then a firm will not continue selling the product they claim is eco-friendly. Moreover, if they are so deceitful and manipulative with their business practices then they will cease to continue period.
But that is only one perspective. For people to care about greenwashing, they also have to care about sustainably more broadly.
If consumers do not possess a clear understanding of the environmental risks from buying unsustainable products, they are unlikely to know, or more crucially, care about the ill practices of greenwashing.
And so, this emphasizes the importance of not only solid education but a well-rounded one too.
What this means, is not simply having strong academic knowledge to teach about sustainability, but also getting brands and social enterprises to teach through their marketing campaigns or initiatives.
Particularly among companies, helping to engage more people over sustainability will also help to promote sustainable development and encourage greater corporate sustainability. Source
Yet, again, that is but one perspective. The Bottom-up approach…
Solutions to Greenwashing?
… because, in order to comprehensively ensure sustainability is promoted while greenwashing is avoided, communities need to cooperate and stimulate governments to act too.
This is known as the top-down approach. Specifically, while consumers can educate themselves or change their buying behavior, and businesses can engage with corporate sustainability, both will have limited success if aren’t systemic and policy changes too.
Australia gives a perfect illustration of how more governments could, and should, take steps to combat greenwashing while pushing for more sustainable practices.
Their guide helps to ‘educate businesses about their obligations’ under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), and reflects such a simple yet effective effort to improve awareness. Source
Once producers and businesses are more informed, this can spill over into consumers behaviour and buying habits, since they recognize authentic products and companies. All this poses opportunity for developing countries and communities.
This is because they are the those most in need and mostly likely to benefit from a growing green economy, especially considering that many are hubs for sustainably driven industries like agriculture or ecotourism, allowing them to leverage their prospects.
Effective policies by governments, coupled with proactivity by foreign social enterprises for instance, would also allow more local populations to develop their own eco-friendly start-ups.
In doing so, not only would it serve to increase the knowledge-economy of that country, it would motivate more people to act.
Building a foundation based on the sustainable design will produce tangible outcomes and induce lasting change as they develop greater understanding. Source
Not to mention, removing the threat of greenwashing. Or should that be wringing-out it out.