Jessica Verheij highlights instances of greenwashing across several industries and urges E&M readers to be critical. 

Last month, ClientEarth, a legal environmental NGO, filed a legal complaint against BP British Petroleum (BP) for providing the public with misleading information regarding its commitments to transitioning to a low carbon energy future. The reason for the complaint is a multi-billion dollar advertising campaign, launched in the beginning of 2019, focusing on alternative energy sources beyond oil and gas and using the slogan “Possibilities Everywhere”.

See below an example of one of several campaign videos avaliable on the BP Youtube account.

According to ClientEarth, BP is giving the impression that it is part of the climate solution, when in fact 96% of its investments are directed towards extracting oil and gas – a highly polluting activity and one of the main drivers of climate change. While the campaign shows images of BP being a clean energy champion in a world full of windmills, the reality is that it is making billions of profit on extracting and selling fossil fuels. The group of lawyers asks for a warning message to appear in the advertisements, similar to the warning placed on cigarette packages, ensuring people’s awareness of the damaging effect of the companies’ products.

BP is not alone: greenwashing has become quite a well-known marketing trick, as consumers have become more aware of environmental issues and are adapting their buying-behaviour accordingly. Regulations by national and international bodies for consumer protection and trade regulation are increasingly targeting greenwashing. However, the court case against BP is quite extraordinary, as it is often challenging to link bad environmental performance to a specific product or service. Therefore, misleading marketing campaigns often go by unpunished.

Reuse your towel, save the environment

Reuse your towels | Photo: Aaron Morton (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Greenwashing is a form of communication where the company tries to persuade the public of its “greenness” only to improve its image and increase profits, while in reality its main activities remain environmentally unfriendly or unsustainable. Although this has become more common, the trick is not new. The term was coined already in the 1980s by the environmentalist Jay Westervelt. He wrote an essay about greenwashing in hotels asking guests to reuse their towels to save the environment. In fact, most hotels do not take any significant measures to reduce their environmental impact, but use this argument as a cost-saving measure.

The issue with greenwashing is not that the claims made by the companies are necessarily untrue: washing less towels is good for the environment, and in the same way BP is actually investing some money in sustainable energy sources. However, more money is spent to communicate this to the public than to effectively do as much as possible to become sustainable. Often the green actions and behaviours displayed in greenwashing campaigns affect just a tiny fraction of the actual environmental damage done by the company.

Greenwashing is about the difference between what a company can do for the environment and what it is actually doing.

Sustainable fast-fashion?

Greenwashing is about the difference between what a company can do for the environment and what it is actually doing. Meanwhile, a majority of consumers is willing to pay more for a product if they believe it is sustainable or environmentally-friendly. This simple fact makes greenwashing campaigns highly profitable.

Besides oil companies and hotels, another usual suspect are fast-fashion companies. Norway’s consumer watchdog has recently called out H&M for using greenwashing in its H&M Conscious collection. Based on the description of the collection on H&M’s webpage, the Norwegians argued that not enough information is provided on how exactly this clothing line can be considered sustainable. For example, the company is unable to provide exact information on how much recycled material is used in each garment – a detail that makes a major difference and that should be provided to the consumer. Whereas H&M portrays this collection as a way for people to make a positive contribution to a healthier environment, the company is part of an industry often accused of being the second most polluting in the world.

The mass-production of millions, if not billions, of clothing items per year, transported all across the globe and often almost instantly disposed of by its buyers, has led to major environmental crises, be it due to the impact of cotton production, the use of chemicals or the mass-production of waste. Yet when seeing an advertisement for H&M Conscious, full of natural colours, long dresses and landscapes filled with flowers and trees, we might as well think we are saving the world.

Edible coffee cups?

Over a decade ago, the same Norwegian watchdog already prohibited car companies to call their cars ‘green’, ‘clean’ or ‘environmentally-friendly’ – no car is any of this, only perhaps less damaging than other cars. Greenwashing is intimately linked with the car industry, as probably one of the most well-known cases of greenwashing is the Volkswagen scandal of 2015. It became known that VW had deliberately circumvented regulations for car emissions, by placing a device in its cars that would reduce performance and thus emissions during test scenarios. On the road the VW cars would emit significantly more than legally allowed, yet the brand marketed its cars as ‘clean’.

Airline companies are equally prone to tag their operations as ‘sustainable’, hence often being accused of greenwashing. Although aviation accounts for just over 2% of global CO2 emissions, these emissions are growing rapidly due to increased supply and demand. Between 2013 and 2018 emissions caused by the aviation sector increased by 35%, whereas the rest of the world is drastically trying to cut emissions down.

Airline companies’ sustainability policies tend to focus on reducing waste on board or buying more energy-efficient aircrafts, whereas these measures have only a minor impact on their overall environmental performance.

All good and well, but really the issue is not so much about disposable cups, and rather about those growing emissions.

Recently, Air New Zealand launched a pilot project to provide edible coffee cups on board: indeed, cups that you can eat after you have finished your coffee, in an attempt to reduce the waste produced during a flight. All good and well, but really the sustainability issue of Air New Zealand is not so much about its disposable cups, and rather about those growing emissions.

Reducing on air waste to balance out CO2 emissions? | Photo: Dmitry Terekhov (Flickr); License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Be critical, not sceptical!

Of course, it is not easy for multinational companies managing global supply chains with thousands of players to suddenly become sustainable.

There is a significant difference between companies that market themselves as sustainable, and companies that are actually doing everything they can to reduce their environmental impact.

The fact that companies feel pressured to provide their customers with more sustainable and environmentally-friendly products and services is definitely a step in the right direction. But there is a significant difference between companies that market themselves as sustainable, and companies that are actually doing everything they can to reduce their environmental impact. It is important to know this difference, as otherwise we might become sceptical towards any sustainability claim made by companies.

The fact that BP is investing more money in its advertisement campaign than in developing clean energy sources does not mean an oil company cannot be part of the solution. The fact that H&M is unable to provide detailed information about the recycled material in its sustainable clothing collection does not mean a clothing collection cannot be sustainable. And the fact that Air New Zealand is spreading the word on its edible cups does not mean an airline company is unable to act on decreasing its emissions.

Instead of becoming sceptical, we should be critical. Before accepting, or dismissing, a company’s sustainability claims, try to understand how committed they are: is it about just one collection, one item or one season? Or are efforts directed towards long-term changes in the entire production and supply chain? Is a company willing to reduce its profits to ensure its environmental impact is minimised? Or do they continue with business as usual? Asking these questions can help you to make a more grounded decision.

In the end, the best thing a company can do to convince you that it is taking sustainability seriously, is to not try to persuade you to buy things you do not need. If you think this is a very radical idea, trust me: those companies exist and yes, some of them are actually very successful. So be conscious about what you buy and do not buy, and be critical, not sceptical!

Cover photo: Wim van ‘t Einde on Unsplash

  • retro

    Jessica Verheij is originally from the Netherlands but has spent a major part of her life in Portugal. She studied International Relations in Lisbon and Human Geography in Amsterdam. After having lived in Ghana and later in Berlin, she moved to Stockholm to take a Msc. degree in Urban Planning. She is now back in Lisbon where she is developing her interest in urban and spatial planning in relation to environmental concerns.

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