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Greenwashing: The Impression of Sustainability

Martha Davies explains the toxic concept of ‘greenwashing’, and how it’s preventing us from having truly sustainable lifestyles.

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

In the growing shadow of the climate crisis and a widespread yearning to make more sustainable choices, consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally-conscious.

Yet many companies have reacted not by improving their practices to match this, but by turning to ‘greenwashing’, and making false claims about their commitment to the environment. 

Adapted from the term ‘whitewashing’, which describes an attempt to cover up misdeeds, greenwashing refers to the act of misleading customers about the sustainability of a brand or product, exploiting a desire to invest in goods that are environmentally sound. Consumers may thus be encouraged to align themselves with companies that appear to value sustainability and ethical practices but are not truly devoted to helping the environment.

The term was first coined by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1960s to describe the actions of a hotel chain that was touting its environmental initiative in enabling guests to save the environment simply by encouraging them to reuse their towels. Greenwashing can now be identified in brands who exaggerate their sustainability, claiming to act sustainably while often having an extremely harmful environmental impact. The resort Westerveld wrote about, for instance, was expanding its business into the surrounding area while its management championed their apparently environmentally-friendly values.

How Can We Identify Greenwashing?

Companies begin to greenwash their products and practices when they find they can no longer live up to the environmental demands of consumers. With the future of the planet weighing ever more heavily on our minds, we expect big brands to support ethical and sustainable values, but our desire to make better choices can lead us to buy into greenwashing, accepting false or inflated statements about how ‘eco-friendly’ products really are. Although we hope brands have the right priorities, they may be disingenuous, marketing themselves as ‘green’ while ignoring their wider environmental impact, or glossing over other practices or investments that betray a lack of sustainability.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of greenwashing. In 2018, Starbucks made headlines by announcing that it would halt the use of plastic straws in all its stores. Yet the cup lids now used are actually made of more plastic than the previous straws and lids combined. Starbucks has acknowledged this, arguing that the new ‘strawless’ lids are still preferable because they can be recycled, where plastic straws cannot; only a fraction of the world’s plastic is recycled every year, meaning that there is no guarantee that the new lids will be recycled, even if they are recyclable.

Starbucks’ anti-straw initiative subsequently becomes a way to appear committed to sustainability without making any truly meaningful moves towards helping the environment. This is the essence of greenwashing.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Greenwashing feels demoralising, and, at worst, callous, as big brands capitalise on their consumers’ desire to improve the environment and make hollow promises they have no intention of acting upon. They must be held accountable for any deceitfulness. Transparency is key; the House of Commons' cross-party Treasury Committee has advocated for better environmental labelling on investments, for example, in order to ensure that financial regulation is not ambiguous or misleading. 

And just as many huge businesses attempt to downplay their transgressions, others are addressing their environmental impact. Clothing giant Patagonia is one such company: it confesses to using chemicals in its products and does not deny its carbon footprint, brazenly acknowledging the struggle to be sustainable instead of exaggerating its achievements. This kind of honesty is refreshing amid the murkiness of supposedly ‘green’ marketing.

Yet the onus is not just on companies to be open and actively committed to the environment. It also falls to us as consumers to encourage this. Understanding the dangers of greenwashing allows us to identify any half-hearted attempts at sustainability, ultimately helping us to align ourselves with brands and initiatives that are genuinely devoted to positive change.


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