What is greenwashing?

What is greenwashing?

“Greenwashing” or “Green Sheen” is the title given to a business or organisation masking their activities with environmental practices. Throughout this article, we’ll set out different types of “greenwashing” examples and how this affects marketing today.

This guise known as greenwashing was originally coined by Jay Westerveld in 1983, when he saw that a hotel was asking people to reuse their towels to “reduce ecological damage”, but instead the hotel was enjoying the benefits of saving their time and money from less laundry.

What are types of greenwashing?

Using environmental symbols to project a certain image, misleading labels and language and hidden trade-offs are all at the forefront of greenwashing. We’ll give you some examples of these below:

Greenwashing in fast fashion

In 2021, H&M launched display windows with the words “Eco Warrior and Climate Crusader” and other messages along these lines. These displays used posters which resembled painted placards usually used on protests.

Using this powerful language and style has been spurred on by the sustainability demand that some businesses have jumped on. In 2021, 73% of consumers in the UK wanted to be more sustainable according to Garnier’s One Green Step report.

However, H&M’s Conscious collection, a clothing line created to be more environmentally friendly, used more damaging materials than the main bulk of their clothing. A huge cause for concern and distrust in the brand. After all, we were being led to believe they were being “conscious” of their actions, weren’t we?

What are hidden trade-offs in greenwashing?

A business might announce their use of recyclable plastic packaging, but the ingredients of the product itself might have elements which are becoming difficult to source or damaging to the environment.

Some businesses might feel they can attract people through their good practices but keep their more toxic activities hidden.

In 2020, Burger King released an advertisement about their cows only being fed on lemongrass which meant that they produced less methane, a harmful gas to the environment. They said that doing this reduced methane emissions by “approximately 33%”, but they later said the cows were only given this feed for the last 3-4 months of their life.

In Popular Science magazine, they note this and say this percentage is misleading as over the expanse of a cow’s life this is only 3%. This low-methane burger was only available at selected restaurants in the US as well. The hidden trade-off being that the burger outside of the US wouldn’t be low-methane as it wasn’t available, and it wouldn’t be as low as stated in the advert in any case.

Another company who could be seen as using this tactic is Nestlé. They stated in 2019 that using satellite technology in their supply chain is helping to stop deforestation. However, organisations such as Greenpeace and Rainforest Rescue have fact-checked this in 2020 and said that Nestlé palm oil is not sustainable. The hidden tradeoff and the failure to source environmentally friendly palm oil has led to a lot of criticism of the brand and a disingenuous reputation.

Statistic: 63% of adults over 18 said that brands should be more transparent in their communications about sustainability.

Should businesses be ‘cancelled’ for greenwashing?

People want claims by businesses to be backed up by facts and evidence. Worries over being misled are leading to calls for honesty from brands, even if it puts them in a bad light.

There’s a growing number of people who want to join or be part of companies who are doing what they can to be sustainable. In a survey on behalf of CIM, 48% of marketing professionals surveyed want their employer to be more transparent about their impact on the environment. That’s almost half of the people asked who are calling for their company to step up and be honest about their actions.

Along with this, 32% of these employees are currently proud of their company’s sustainability credentials, giving the rest a lot of room for improvement.

In a move for more ethical and honest activities, a previous employee at Blackrock (a money management company) called “sustainable investing” a sham. ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing ‘is merely a way of charging higher fees’ claims this employee. He said they might not have used huge polluting companies, but there were other investors happy to step in and there was no loss to the companies themselves.   

The transparency of a business is being scrutinised more than ever, with sustainability at the heart. In another survey on behalf of CIM, 63% of adults want more transparency from brands' sustainability communications. 

From consumers to those employed by a business, people want more and more to have relationships with companies that fit with their personal values and beliefs.

How did the pandemic play its part?

Putting the planet first has risen near the top of many people’s agendas. They want the changes that businesses made during COVID-19 lockdowns to stay in place as they made a positive impact on the world. Community and localism are growing in importance, with many choosing local businesses and paying more attention to product origins. This seems to be to support our neighbours and the environment including carbon footprint and sustainable sources.

How to avoid greenwashing

In CIM's Podcast Episode 62: The secrets to successful sustainable marketing, Emilie Stephenson, head of force for good UK for Innocent Drinks, says “I often say sustainability might be green, but it’s never black and white”. Emilie speaks about an advert which was deemed as greenwashing as it claimed that Innocent would be helping to “fix up the planet”. The company agreed to remove the advert and put their hands up to the greenwashing as it was a broad claim.

Three ways to avoid greenwashing situations such as the above are to:

  • Don’t use language that is too foggy. Be as straight forward and transparent as you can be with your practices, this leads into the next point…
  • Put the work in and do your best to learn how your business processes work - what goes into your services and products.
  • You can show humanity by demonstrating that your business has aspirations to be better in its sustainability. That things aren’t perfect but that your business is striving to improve.

Living without the Green Sheen

As consumers, employees and people living on this planet, we are all touched by the messages that businesses give out. Being held accountable for our actions is something that we as individuals and collectives are increasingly experiencing. We seem to crave transparency more than anything, not being kept in the dark about what we’re buying even if it means ugly truths without the polish of the Green Sheen.

You can view more on how to avoid greenwashing in marketing here. For information on how you can train yourself to be more sustainability savvy, read more about our Fundamentals of Sustainable Marketing course.

Andrea Lewis Marketing co-ordinator CIM
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