Greenwashing and the Perils of it

The act of giving miscommunication and misleading consumers by companies with their conflated or erroneous claims of environmental practices and impact.

Paint it Green

Earlier this year, a renowned South Korean beauty brand had to apologize for their packaging decisions.[1] A serum bottle which was proudly proclaimed to be a ‘paper bottle’ was pointed out to conceal a plastic container inside it. Although the company made clarifications that the ‘paper’ bottle uses less plastic than the regular packaging, they were called out for greenwashing and misleading consumers.[2] This is not the sole incident in the beauty industry. The beauty aisle is piled with products in green bottles with labels of being ‘all natural’ and ‘sourced from nature’.[3] The query is that how much truth is there in these claims or statements made by such companies? Or, take the example of greenwashing by the fast-food chain McDonald who introduced paper straws as a sustainable alternative to plastic straws but were found to be not recyclable, that defeats the purpose for which it was introduced.[4] 

It is pertinent to know that what is greenwashing? Greenwashing refers to the act of giving miscommunication and misleading consumers by companies with their conflated or erroneous claims of environmental practices and impact.[5] Scholars Lyon and Montgomery, write that greenwashing is aimed at making people develop “overly positive beliefs about an organization’s environmental performance, practices, or products.”[6] Thus, as identified by Aggarwal and Kadyan, greenwashing or ‘greenmarketting’ is an all-encompassing phenomenon where an organization promotes its products and itself as environment-friendly involving innovation and modification in product development, manufacturing, packaging and advertising.[7] To be more precise, in the words of Francis Bowen (2014) greenwashing is ‘a specific subset of symbolic corporate environmentalism in which the changes are both merely symbolic and deliberately so’.[8]

The term, greenwashing, was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in his essay in 1986.[9] The essay dealt with a hotel which promoted their practice of reusing towels as a ‘green initiative’ but it was more of an economic decision for cost cutting. As our world faces the challenges of climate change, greenwashing poses a major threat. Greenwashing and greenmarketting becomes a tool for these companies to attract consumers and investors. Rather than working towards sustainability, the company will be more interested to spend money in advertising and ‘green’ image building. It helps in competing in the global market considering how a recent survey conducted in the US found that 77% adults are concerned with the environmental impact of the products they buy.[10] 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been found to have increased environmental awareness, according to a BCG Survey conducted in India, Indonesia, China, France, Brazil, South Africa, the UK and the US in 2020.[11] Thus, we inhabit a time when the demands for greenwashing and greenmarketting will increase as consumers wish to prefer greener choices in buying. An Indian study in 2014 showed that greenwashing is highest in personal care products- averaging to 62%.[12] Companies market their products to be natural, paraben-free, organic, and recycled. Consumers are faced with the ordeal of navigating the market to make sustainable choices. 

Caught Green (washed) Handed

Ingmar Lippert enlists four forms of greenwashing: products, process, symbol, structures.[13] While products simply refer to the marketing of the product itself as more ‘green’, the ‘process’ denotes the practice of advertising the adoption of ‘end of pipe’ greening and/or integrated approach like using efficient machines. Symbol, as suggestive of the name, refers to the practices of organizations where only symbolic actions are undertaken towards ecological sustainability but without any substantial changes to the actual material reality.  The last form points to greenwashing as a structural or systemic level. As Lippert writes, ‘capitalism’ can be viewed as such a grand structure which is intrinsically working against environmental interests. 

Nestle USA had been accused in a class-action lawsuit to fake misleading claims of using ‘ethically sourced’ cocoa for their chocolates which were sustainable and supportive of local farmers.[14] However, the plaintiff pointed out that there were barely any environmental or ethical standards being met by the company as they claimed. Their activities in West Africa led to destruction of rainforests and relied upon child labour. In 2020, a Tide cleaning product had been marketed as a ‘green product’ derived from 100% plant based ingredients where it was only 75% plant based and even contained petroleum based compounds in it.[15] The National Advertising Divisions had recommended Tide’s parent company P&G (Procter & Gamble) to modify such claims.[16] The aforementioned instances can be understood as examples of greenwashing of products and processes respectively. 

Starbucks’ introduced ‘strawless lid’ in 2018 as a part of its sustainability actions but the lids were reported to contain more plastic than the older combination of lid and straw. When in the world, only 9% of the plastic waste generated is recycled it is a gross misstep on the company’s part to assume that all the polypropylene made lid will be easily recycled.[17] With the US exporting one third of its recycling to the developing nations, it ultimately puts pressure on already strained poorer countries.[18] Swedish furniture chain IKEA has been linked to illegal logging of millions of pine trees from Russia’s protected boreal forests.[19] The fast fashion industry has become a key contributor to waste and landfill. A report by a non-profit released a couple of months back in 2021[20], showed 59% of environmental claims by European and UK fashion brands are misleading where the greatest number of greenwashing offenses committed by clothing company, H&M.[21] One example would be their “Conscious Collection”. Although called ‘conscious’, the collection in reality has a higher proportion (72%) of synthetic fibers than its fast-fashion line (61%). 

Conclusion

Greenwashing is a major concern as the climate crisis accelerates. At the same time, one needs to assess if it can truly be avoided with the mounting pressures and incentives of competitive markets.[22] Companies must step up to be more transparent and should analyses the environmental impacts of their products throughout their life cycles. Credible and independent third parties can play a role in providing legitimate certifications. Increased awareness of greenwashing has led to green skepticism. Greenskepticsm will work to obstruct greenmarketting.[23] However, without proper changes and the continued presence of greenwashing, consumers will have the burden of differentiating which green claim is true. Thus, real green concerns risk being ignored.  Change needs to arise at the individual and at the structural levels to put an end to greenwashing for good. 

REFERENCES


[1] South Korea beauty brand sorry for ‘paper bottle’ label fail. (2021). [Online] Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56687585

[2] A South Korean beauty brand admitted that its product marked ‘I’m paper bottle’ is actually a plastic bottle wrapped in paper. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.businessinsider.in/retail/news/a-south-korean-beauty-brand-admitted-that-its-product-marked-im-paper-bottle-is-actually-a-plastic-bottle-wrapped-in-paper/articleshow/81990828.cms

[3] The beauty industry relies on plastic. Can it change? (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/beauty-personal-care-industry-plastic

[4] McDonald’s paper straws cannot be recycled. (2019). [Online] Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49234054

[5] De Freitas Netto, S., Sobral, M., Ribeiro, A., & Soares, G. (2020). [Online] Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environmental Sciences Europe32(1). doi: 10.1186/s12302-020-0300-3

[6] Lyon, Thomas P., and A. Wren Montgomery. “The Means and End of Greenwash.” Organization & Environment, vol. 28, no. 2, Sage Publications, Inc., 2015, pp. 223–49, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26164732.

[7] Greenwashing: The Darker Side Of CSr – IJAR – Indian Journal of Applied Research. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.worldwidejournals.com/indian-journal-of-applied-research-(IJAR)/fileview/March_2014_1492756096__20.pdf

[8] After Greenwashing. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://books.google.co.in/books/about/After_Greenwashing.html?id=VBlvAwAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

[9] Becker-Olsen, K., & Potucek, S. (2013). Greenwashing. Encyclopedia Of Corporate Social Responsibility, 1318-1323. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-28036-8_104

[10] WIRE, B. (2021). GreenPrint Survey Finds Consumers Want to Buy Eco-Friendly Products, but Don’t Know How to Identify Them. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20210322005061/en/GreenPrint-Survey-Finds-Consumers-Want-to-Buy-Eco-Friendly-Products-but-Don%E2%80%99t-Know-How-to-Identify-Them

[11] The Pandemic Is Heightening Environmental Awareness. (2020). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.bcg.com/en-in/publications/2020/pandemic-is-heightening-environmental-awareness

[12] Supra note 7.

[13] Lippert, Ingmar. (2011). Greenwashing, Green Culture An A-to-Z Guide, 421-430, SAGE

[14] Walker-v-Nestle-complaint.pdf (truthinadvertising.org)

[15] Tide Purclean | Truth In Advertising. (2020). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.truthinadvertising.org/tide-purclean/

[16] NAD Finds Tide purclean’s Website “Plant-Based” Claims Supported. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://bbbprograms.org/media-center/newsroom/nad-finds-tide-purclean-s-website-plant-based-claims-supported-but-label-claims-should-be-modified-p-g-to-appeal-4x-cleaning-power-finding

[17] Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. (2018). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2018/03/06/only-9-of-the-worlds-plastic-is-recycled

[18] 10 Companies and Corporations Called Out For Greenwashing. (2021). Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://earth.org/greenwashing-companies-corporations/

[19] Moskowitz, E. (2021). Report: Ikea Linked to Illegal Logging in Protected Russian Forests. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.occrp.org/en/daily/14838-report-ikea-linked-to-illegal-logging-in-protected-russian-forests

[20] Nearly 60% of Sustainable Fashion Claims Are Greenwashing, R. (2021). Nearly 60% of Sustainable Fashion Claims Are Greenwashing, Report Finds. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://www.greenqueen.com.hk/fashion-brands-sustainability-claims-greenwashing/

[21] Svensson, C. (2021). The Changing Markets Foundation partners with NGOs on market focused campaigns. Retrieved 10 October 2021, from https://changingmarkets.org/

[22] Supra note 7

[23] De Freitas Netto, S.V., Sobral, M.F.F., Ribeiro, A.R.B. et al. Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Environ Sci Eur 32, 19 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-020-0300-3

Deepsikha Dasgupta completed her undergraduate degree in Sociology at the Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests include social anthropology, religion, gender, and medical anthropology. She is currently a postgraduate student at South Asian University, New Delhi.

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