Greenwashing: The Dark Side Of A Conscious Movement

18 December 2019 - by Jenna Thompson

2019 saw both 'climate change' and 'woke' in Google's top 10 most-searched words. Popularity in both terms is a testament to the ever-growing importance of becoming a more informed and conscious individual. The growing interest has also seen the demand for environmentally friendly goods and services rise, with a recent survey showing 63% of consumers want to buy from purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability. 

Some companies have seen this growth as an opportunity to improve their impact and make meaningful changes. Some companies greenwash.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a company's allocation of energy and resources to appear ethical, environmentally conscious and socially aware. The issue is not investment into a good cause, but rather investment to convey a false message. In this case, a company's cloak of a 'green direction' relates to monetary value rather than positive change.

The concept of greenwashing is not a new one; New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt coined the term in the 1980s. However, with a greater spotlight on corporate environmental responsibility, the problem is becoming more frequent. Words like sustainable, green, conscious or ethical are hard to define in legislation and have therefore been exploited. Like magic, clever marketing and PR can make it hard for even the discerning consumer to distinguish between genuinely sustainable practices and the appearance of them. 

Greenwashing can take different forms depending on the industry and the level of corruption in each business. So how can you avoid the inflated costs that are associated with a sustainably unsustainable brand? From my own experience, greenwashing can take three main forms:

Buzzword Eco

Sometimes a brand may use clever wording to make a product appear environmentally friendly. Terms like 'natural' and 'conscious' don't have to be substantiated with evidence to make the claims. Environmentally conscious companies will often seek certification to accredit adherence to standards. For example, using certified cotton and having biodegradable or recyclable emblems on the packaging.  

Lesson: when in doubt, look for certification.

Subliminal Eco

Without even being aware of it, we associate certain colours, textures and imagery with sustainability and ethical practice. Earthy tones, matte finishes, minimalist style and images of nature all suggest a natural and minimally processed item. Often this is used to make a product appear healthier and more environmentally friendly than it is. 

Lesson: look beyond the packaging. 

Reductionist Eco

This is where one issue is tackled, however, the product as a whole is not green. For example, a biodegradable wet-wipe that is packaged in plastic wrapping or a recycled product that has not attempted to use renewable energy in its production. If a company's motivation is to be sustainable and ethical, it will not address a singular issue. 

Lesson: be prepared to investigate more than just the product.

The Real Eco

Learning about the issue can make it hard to trust any brand. However, there are a plethora of clever, thought-provoking, functional products that place environmental protection at the forefront of their business. Purchasing power has the capacity to make a significant impact on the climate crisis if directed properly. The funding of sustainable products works towards a circular system, where materials and resources have multiple uses. This, in turn, reduces waste and lowers the impact of consumption.

The takeaway

The reality is that producing genuinely sustainable products costs more. So the question has to be asked: how can I buy a t-shirt branded 'conscious' if it costs £5? The answer: you can't. 

There is a price behind every cheap price tag. It may not be obvious to the consumer. However, for the worker being paid $68 a month, the 40 years it takes for the synthetic fibres to decompose and the 5.5kg carbon footprint left from the t-shirt’s production, it is plain to see. 

Greenwashing is not only deceitful, but it also funds exploitation and saturates the market, making it harder for genuine green companies to compete. Polish bronze, it won't turn into gold. Greenwash an ethically questionable company – it's still unethical.  

Written for Grace & Green by Lucy Noon.

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Jenna Thompson

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