Greenwashing(n.)¹: the act of misleading customers or potential customers into believing that a product is environmentally friendly.
words Chantel Tanaka Tsvetu
The conversation around environmental sustainability was prevalent throughout the last decade. From changing our habits at home to green initiatives at our schools and workplaces, we continue to be confronted by the need to shift towards an environmentally-sustainable world. If you aren’t doing something to preserve the environment, you’re considered the bad guy, but is it really your fault?
Corporations haven’t yet been able to adjust to the current climate conversation. Changing policy in the face of environmental activism is a mammoth task that risks profit and job security for a lot of companies. Procurement and production methods have been slowly—very slowly—improving, as companies attempt to undo a century worth of environmental damage.
Take, for example, the energy sector in Canada; they were responsible for around 52% of the greenhouse gas emissions in Canada in 2017, but they also employ about 82,000 people.² This industry has been around since the 1880s, and making a switch to green energy is a monumental—and complicated—project.
From predicaments like that, a nasty monster has been steadily growing: greenwashing. Corporations have been using public relations and marketing to paint a pretty picture of corporate social responsibility and to tie themselves to the conversation around environmental sustainability. It’s often a cover-up for all the non-sustainable practices in their production chains.
For example, in 2010, Chevron built Brightfield—an area for solar energy panels to power pumps and pipelines at the Kern River heavy oil facility. The project seemed like the right step towards clean energy, but the facility was built on one of their dirtiest oil facilities. At that time, Chevron was one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the industry. The project was praised as “a clear example of Chevron trying to find ways to integrate innovative technologies in business.” That year, only 1.96% of Chevron’s budget was spent on green energy. ³
Building an environmentally friendly image boosts sales of products, and companies know that. When you walk in a supermarket and browse through the aisles, you will see the words organic, all natural, and environmentally friendly on a wide variety of packages. These will be the products most people reach for first.
A 2014 survey⁴ conducted at Ryerson University reported that 86% of Canadian adults are more likely to buy a green product or service. Of that portion, 43% of them were willing to pay more for a product or service that claims to be ethically and responsibly manufactured and delivered. Phrases like environmentally sustainable, responsibly made, and all natural are used to attract customers to a product. Still, it’s questionable if the everyday consumer really knows what they really mean.
Did you know that there is no standard board definition for most labels? This leaves companies in a place where they are unaccountable and free to define these terms themselves. In the case of beauty products, labels like botanical or holistic could mean that a few extract drops were put in that product. Those few drops could supplement a myriad of other harmful and lengthily named chemicals.
Corporate deception doesn’t end at misleading labels. A product’s outward appearance gives the impression that it’s good for the environment with an excessive use of earthy colours.
In 2007, TerraChoice outlined the methods in which greenwashing had taken form in what they termed “Sins of Greenwashing.” They concluded that companies used seven ways to greenwash their products: hidden trade-off, lack of proof, vagueness, irrelevant information, falsified third party endorsement, distraction, and false claims.
False claims do happen, and not just in small companies. In 2015, Volkswagen claimed that they regulated the carbon output of their machines. It was later discovered that their vehicles had technology that adjusted the carbon output only when tests were being run, not during regular use.
Clean technology innovations are on the rise, and the efforts of the companies that make these changes should be applauded. However, if companies continue to greenwash their marketing, it will be difficult for the average consumer to know what products are making a difference. Consumers can do their part by researching the claims made about products and services they use regularly. For example, knowing the names of the top ten harmful chemical ingredients in beauty products will allow you to avoid products that contain them.
The climate crisis needs an urgent response, and one way to do this is supporting companies that really are improving their practices. Awareness will help flatten greenwashing schemes and bring us all closer to actually undoing the environmental ruin that has been going on since 1880.