Greenwashing can be subtle or blatant and accidental or intentional. Whatever the case, when companies make claims about sustainability that are not true, it hurts the environment, erodes public trust, and can cost businesses billions. Here are 9 examples of how companies that want to boost their reputation might engage in misleading green marketing. Use them to learn what to ask whenever you see sustainability claims!
There have been several famous oil spills over the last several decades. After each spill, the companies have assiduously tried to rehabilitate their image. Unfortunately, many of the eco-friendly decisions they have made since their spills are purely symbolic - for example, donating supplies to help protect the wildlife endangered by the spill or announcing an initiative to develop sustainable biofuels.
If a food company announced that 100% of its packaging would be reusable or recyclable by 2025, many would agree it is a worthy goal. However, businesses need to provide specifics if they want to be taken seriously. Moreover, a company's credibility is even more doubtful if they are a particularly egregious offender.
Furniture companies need a great deal of wood. More environmentally friendly ones will commit to planting more trees than they consume and adopt other sustainable practices. However, sourcing wood from environments populated by endangered species has a devastating effect on biodiversity.
Increasing Fossil Fuel Consumption to Reduce Plastic Waste?
On the heels of a 2021 UN report that single-use plastic pollution disproportionately impacts marginalized countries and populations, some companies might suggest multiple-use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles as a potential solution to the burgeoning plastic pollution crisis. Unfortunately, PET is a non-biodegradable plastic that is produced from oil.
Plastic straws are awful. Many restaurants offer paper straws, and some food companies have developed new lids. Unfortunately, some require more plastic than the old lids and straws combined. Even if they are recyclable, only 9% of plastic is turned in for recycling.
Big oil companies are responsible for an astounding amount of pollution and natural resource consumption. Yet, while some have aggressively begun advertising new solar or wind initiatives, they never mention that these only account for a minute fraction of their business. Instead, they offer a token effort and rely on suggestive imagery in advertising to maintain good PR.
Fast fashion is a perennial greenwashing offender. When designers announce eco-friendly lines, they often claim that the new clothes use an increased percentage of sustainable materials. However, these announcements are often overinflated – 200% of 1% is only 2%.
Banking on "Green Investments"
Many of the world's largest banks still invest billions in fossil fuels annually. Despite pursuing "green investments," banks invest more in fossil fuels and fossil fuel expansion companies than green companies by far. These investments come when scientists say we must eliminate all new fossil fuel development.
The Lesser Evil Might Not Be Lesser
For years, auto companies have marketed their vehicles as more economical and efficient than previous models. But, as it turns out, the lesser evil is still evil, and vehicles are still tremendous polluters. Furthermore, companies have been known to cheat on emissions tests to claim increased efficiency.
- Speak Clearly – If your business claims to have sustainable practices, ensure it does so clearly. Be specific and offer data. In addition, when you advertise your intentions for the future, provide a roadmap illustrating how you plan to meet your goals.
- Be Coherent – Whatever initiatives you pursue, see they reflect where your business is on its journey. Don't tout a slightly less awful product (e.g., PET bottles) as if it solves anything.
- Partner Carefully – Some banks include environmental criteria to determine investment strategies. You can turn the tables and partner only with lenders (and others) who have divested fossil fuel holdings. Be careful who you associate with!