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Greenwashing: Lies to look out for

It's World Environment Day this week. The perfect opportunity for some greenwashing, here are some lies to look out for.

The journey towards sustainability can feel like an uphill battle, especially when individual efforts seem minuscule compared to the grand scale of global pollution. One might wonder, "What's the point of choosing a paper straw when fleets of private jets roar away from big events such as the Super Bowl?" or "Why should I cut down on meat when the biggest polluters continue to emit staggering amounts of CO2, unchecked?" Such sentiments of frustration and disillusionment echo across online platforms every day, and frankly, they're hard to counter.

In a reality where ordinary folk are struggling, yet the rich and powerful—be it celebrities, multinational companies, or even nations—seem to ravage our planet with impunity, it's natural to feel a mix of anger and helplessness. This viewpoint, however, misses a fundamental truth in the climate crisis dialogue: despite the odds, every effort counts.

Amid this battle, a formidable challenge presents itself: greenwashing. Each day, corporations large and small engage in elaborate campaigns to paint themselves as stewards of the environment, without completing any actions to back this up. Such tactics not only cloud the truth about genuine sustainability endeavors but also prey on our genuine eagerness to make a positive impact on Earth's future.

To arm yourself with the knowledge to see through these deceptions, stay tuned.


Understanding Greenwashing

So, what exactly is greenwashing? Although widely understood today, the term was originally coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s, a time when corporate environmental responsibility was starting to enter public consciousness. To put it succinctly, it is the practice of making people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it truly is.

In other words, greenwashing is more than a deceitful marketing gimmick. It's a strategy employed by some businesses to paint a ‘greener’ image of themselves without making any substantial change.

According to the United Nations (UN), this phenomenon can manifest in numerous, often subtle, ways:

  • False Promises: Companies may claim they're on the path to reducing their emissions without having a realistic plan to achieve it. This often involves setting ambitious environmental targets without clear, actionable strategies or timelines.
  • Vagueness and Ambiguity: There's a tendency for businesses to be deliberately vague about their operations, the materials they use, or the environmental benefits of their products. This lack of specificity makes it challenging for consumers and stakeholders to assess the true impact of their practices.
  • Misleading Labels: The use of terms like "green," "eco-friendly," or "sustainable" can be particularly misleading. These labels lack standard definitions and can be interpreted in various ways. This tactic capitalises on consumers' desire to make environmentally responsible choices, even when the product or service offers little ecological benefit.
  • Overstating Minor Improvements: Some companies highlight minor, often regulatory-compliant, improvements as groundbreaking achievements. This could involve promoting a product that barely meets minimum standards as though it represents a significant advancement in sustainability.
  • Selective Disclosure: Focusing on a single positive environmental attribute while ignoring other negative impacts is another common tactic. This selective disclosure can give a skewed perception of a product's overall environmental footprint.
  • Irrelevant Claims: Asserting that certain illegal or unethical practices are avoided, which are not even relevant to the product or industry, is another way companies attempt to appear more sustainable than they are.
  • Isolated Sustainability Claims: Communicating about a product's sustainable features without considering the broader activities of the brand, and vice versa, is misleading. For instance, a piece of clothing made from recycled materials loses its sustainability appeal if it's produced in a factory that heavily pollutes.

By recognising these tactics, we can start to see greenwashing for what it is: a smokescreen designed to obscure the reality of a company's environmental impact.

Why Should We Care?

The conversation about greenwashing isn’t just a matter of corporate ethics; it is a pressing global concern. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are wrapping the Earth in a blanket of pollution that is warming up the planet at an alarming rate. This has already resulted in more frequent and unpredictable weather events, including wildfires, droughts, storms and floods. Acknowledging this truth can be overwhelming, tempting us to look away and continue our lives as if these changes aren't happening. But to do so is to ignore a looming crisis that threatens our very way of life.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a stark warning: climate change could result in an additional 250,000 deaths per year between 2030 and 2050. These numbers represent real people, communities, and ecosystems at risk due to our warming planet. This dire prediction underscores the urgency of the United Nations' call for drastic reductions in emissions—to nearly half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050. Every increment of warming we can prevent matters, not just for the health of our planet, but for the health and well-being of people worldwide.

What’s this got to do with greenwashing you might ask? The battle against greenwashing is integral to the broader fight against climate change. Greenwashing actively undermines the critical efforts needed to reduce emissions and tackle the climate crisis. By spinning deceptive marketing tales and making false claims of sustainability, businesses engaging in greenwashing pull the wool over the eyes of consumers, investors, and the public at large. This not only erodes trust but also dampens the collective will and action required to enact the global change necessary for a sustainable future.

Navigating this landscape of greenwashing poses a real challenge: discerning which companies are genuinely committed to environmental stewardship and which are simply paying lip service to sustainability. To cut through this fog of deception, transparency is key. By holding companies accountable and demanding transparency, we can help steer the world towards a better future.

Navigating the Greenwash: Spotting Misleading Environmental Claims

"We are climate neutral, carbon negative or climate positive."

This assertion is one that many companies proudly make, suggesting that their operations have zero net impact on the climate, or even benefit it. However, the path to true carbon neutrality or achieving a climate positive status is fraught with hundreds of challenges and requires stringent, often third party-verified actions. It's not just about balancing the books; it involves a deep, meaningful reduction in actual emissions and, in the case of being climate positive, going beyond to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than is emitted. Unfortunately, without transparent evidence and rigorous verification, such claims can be incredibly misleading.

Example: Several UK high-street banks, such as HSBC, have made claims that they are working towards becoming net-zero. Meanwhile, they have invested billions of pounds into fossil fuel companies. For reference, the 60 largest banks invested a staggering $669 billion into the fossil fuel industry in 2022 alone!

"We offset all of our emissions."

The concept of offsetting emissions is another area ripe with greenwashing potential. Whilst it's framed as a way for companies to balance out their carbon footprint by investing in renewable energy or reforestation projects, the effectiveness and integrity of these offsets can vary widely. The challenge lies not just in the measurement and verification of these offsets but also in their execution. Some initiatives, though well-intentioned, may not deliver the long-term environmental benefits promised. Other initiatives can take as long as twenty years to see any benefit.

But that’s not to say all carbon offsetting is bad. In fact, it’s a measure we implement in our company! Offsetting, when done correctly, and as part of a larger and more holistic approach to sustainability, can play an important role. However, it's crucial for consumers to look for offsets that are part of a broader, more comprehensive approach to sustainability, rather than standalone solutions or excuses for business as usual.

Example: The company Verra is the world’s largest certifier of carbon credits and is used by massive corporations such as Disney, Shell and Gucci. However, in 2023, investigative journalists at The Guardian found that at least 90% of Verra’s rainforest carbon credits do not represent real emission reductions. Click here to read the article.

The Pandemic Effect: Misleading Emission Reduction Claims

The COVID-19 pandemic saw a massive global reduction in travel and industrial activity, leading some companies to claim significant reductions in their carbon emissions. However, this narrative can be incredibly misleading. Did these companies' emissions per capita actually decrease, or were the reductions simply a byproduct of reduced operations? Furthermore, with the rise of remote working, some businesses have claimed reduced office emissions without accounting for the increased energy use in employees' homes.

Other Common Claims to Scrutinise

"Made with Recycled Materials": Whilst products made with recycled content are a step in the right direction, this claim doesn't necessarily mean the product is sustainable or low impact overall. It's important to consider the entire lifecycle of the product, from production to disposal.

"Energy Efficient": Companies often tout their products or operations as energy efficient, but without context, this can be deceptive. Efficiency should be measured against industry standards or the product's previous versions to provide meaningful insight.

"Biodegradable" or "Compostable": These terms suggest that a product will break down and return harmlessly to the earth. However, without specifying the conditions under which the product will biodegrade (which often require industrial composting facilities), these labels can be misleading.

As consumers, educators, and citizens, our role in this narrative is critical. We need to demand clarity, support genuinely sustainable practices, and hold companies accountable for their environmental impact, and ultimately, push back against the tide of greenwashing. And don’t be able to question companies’ environmental claims. If sustainability is a genuine concern of theirs, they’ll be able to tell you all about their approach to the environment. It's a daunting task, but one well worth undertaking for the health of our planet and future generations.

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Sources used in this blog

World Health Organization –

The United Nations –

The Guardian –

Which –

Greenpeace -