Buyer, BeWare: The Dangers of Greenwashing


With the constant threat of climate change looming over our heads, the last thing we need is to be manipulated into supporting companies that lie about their ethics. Businesses spanning across all industries invest their time and resources to market themselves as having marked off a range of different buzz words: Sustainable, Environmentally-friendly, Clean, Natural. But in reality, these companies care more about their brand valuation than the environment, using such buzzwords to make up for their unsustainable practices. This phenomenon is widely regarded as “Greenwashing.” 

The Problem

First coined in 1986 by activist Jay Westerveld, the term greenwashing refers to companies that position themselves in a way to appear more environmentally conscious than they truly are. The hospitality industry’s “save the towel” movement inspired the first usage of the term, its premise being that hotels to put up a sign in each guest’s bathroom, relaying a message along the lines of saving the planet by reusing your towel, keeping the hotel from having to use millions of gallons of water each day to clean customers’ towels. In a critical essay, Westerfield called out the irony of hotels preaching such a message while continuing to partake in other unsustainable practices, revealing the “eco-friendly” movement to be none other than a cost-saving ploy that deceived customers into thinking that they were partaking in real environmental initiatives.

Since then, business strategy has disregarded its reactive planning methods for proactive ones, transforming into a competition of identity and exploitation to reach maximum profitability for the company. This has materialized itself as companies maniquiring their brand image to fit into an eco-friendly mold in such ways that exploits the goodwill of consumers. 

Greenwashing actively belittles the efforts of companies who have actual tangible and sustainable objectives incorporated into their business model. By doing so, companies are perpetuating the capitalist cycle of over-consumption by manipulating consumers into believing that their business has positive effects, while in reality, greenwashed companies tend to care least about their environmental footprint. This backwards model harms the consumer through blatant misrepresentation and backtracks real environmental initiatives. 

The Legality

However, the true danger lies in business’ ability to blatantly lie to consumers in order to gain their support. While some may argue that it is the consumers’ responsibility to educate themselves on the origins of their products, this is impossible if the companies themselves are skewing the information to mislead consumers into believing a curated lie. I think many would agree that greenwashing is a despicable business scheme that should have legal ramifications. In my opinion as a law student, intentional greenwashing in certain cases goes against EU Directive 2005/29/EC concerning unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices, Article 6(1)(a)(b):

1. A commercial practice shall be regarded as misleading if it contains false information and is therefore untruthful or in any way, including overall presentation, deceives or is likely to deceive the average consumer, even if the information is factually correct, in relation to one or more of the following elements, and in either case causes or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision that he would not have taken otherwise:
(a) the existence or nature of the product;
(b) the main characteristics of the product, such as its availability, benefits, risks, execution, composition, accessories, after-sale customer assistance and complaint handling, method and date of manufacture or provision, delivery, fitness for purpose, usage, quantity, specification, geographical or commercial origin or the results to be expected from its use, or the results and material features of tests or checks carried out on the product;

Examples in the Market

From the consumers’ perspective, it is difficult to avoid the greenwashing schemes that many of the major companies dominating the market utilize. A disheartening consequence of the climate crisis is that many corporations are posing as environmentally friendly in order to augment their sales despite the evident issue of overconsumption. Therefore, if you value supporting companies whose ethics align with your own, or just value transparency, you must be aware of the different forms in which greenwashing can take. Before all, know that greenwashing is not sector specific. Accordingly, the  following paragraphs will offer examples to understand how greenwashing can manifest across sectors. 

For instance, the oil giant Chevron ran a large-scale television and print out campaign in the mid-90s to market itself as being dedicated to the environment, known as the “People Do” campaign. This scheme portrayed them to be taking steps to protect wildlife and the natural environment to the public. Meanwhile, the oil company was actively leaking oil into wildlife refuges as well as violating the US Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. 

Moreso, Volkswagen found itself in major legal trouble when it was revealed that they faked the emissions reports for several of their diesel vehicles in 2015, both misleading consumers and causing detrimental (and illegal) environmental harm. In summary, the car manufacturer had developed a “defeat device” in many of their US-sold diesel vehicles which could detect when it was being tested for emissions, and would change the car’s performance to reduce emissions during that specific period. In normal circumstances, the so-called environmentally friendly vehicle would produce emissions up to 40 times what is allowed in the US. For years, Volkswagen’s line of diesel vehicles was considered to be among the most sustainable options on the market, fooling customers and governments alike, while in reality, it was actively taking steps to harm the planet.  

The cosmetics industry also tends to be a high perpetrator of false advertising. Take the company Lush, for example. Their entire business model revolves around marketing themselves as an all-natural, vegetarian, and cruelty-free enterprise, offering “clean” products to their customers. When you enter a Lush storefront, the decorations inside make the customer feel like they are in an environmentally-focused oasis, but that is far from the truth. Lush has been accused time and time again of greenwashing, since in reality, their products contain toxic ingredients, including potential endocrine disruptors which are “linked with developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems.”

A plethora of other supporting examples exists, revolving around every sector of industry. Energy Tracker Asia provides an insightful list of the Top 10 Greenwashing Companies of 2022, naming McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Nespresso as some of the top perpetrators. 

How to Detect Greenwashing

Other tactics can help you as the consumer to detect sly greenwashing schemes, as sophisticated teams design these schemes with the pure intent of misleading the public. Be wary of labels, since many companies use labels that give off the impression that the company is “natural” or “environmentally friendly” but lack legal value. This means that they are not officially certified and therefore have no actual significance nor evidence to back their claims. These can appear as recycle symbols, leaves, green dots or designs, etc. in an attempt to make the consumer associate the brand with the environment. Moreover, in terms of cosmetics and food, be sure to critically read the ingredient labels, since companies tend to highlight natural ingredients to stray the attention away from their toxic ones. Some toxic ingredients to avoid include: Parabens, silicones, glycol ethers, and alkylphenols. 

As the world continues its fight against the climate crisis, consumers will continue to see a rise in companies adopting greenwashed business strategies. The dangers of this are unforeseeable. Consumers have the right to know the origins and intentions of the companies they support so they can act in ways that align with their morals. By the lack of transparency by businesses, consumers have lost this right and are misled into supporting actions that contradict their intentions and undermine the honest intentions of companies with sustainable objectives. I believe that the climate crisis cannot be adequately combated without this transparency between consumers and companies. Despite some mobility to do so, governments need to regulate and hold accountable these unfair business practices that blatantly deceive the consumer and perpetuate cycles of environmental exploitation. Until then, Buyer, BeWare. 

Featured image by: Nattanan Kanchanapra / Pixabay

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