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GREENWASHING: are we really buying green?

Marketing plays a key role these days: customers are often attracted more by the advertising or packaging of products than by the product itself. However, it is important that we make an informed decision every time we make a purchase. Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986 as a result of a movement started by hotels called "save the towel". This movement consisted of hotels asking their guests to reuse towels in order to protect the environment, but in reality, hotels only benefited from lower laundry costs. Greenwashing is realized through marketing strategies, specifically rebranding, renaming, and repackaging. Companies using these strategies aim to deceive customers by showing that their products are environmentally friendly, when in reality they are the opposite. Greenwashing is basically the essence of "anti-sustainable" because it makes consumers think they are buying eco-friendly products, but at the same time, environmental disasters like ocean and air pollution are on the rise. The worst part is that companies often spend more money and resources on implementing greenwashing strategies instead of adopting sustainable business practices.

This raises some questions: how can we, as consumers, recognize greenwashing strategies? And how can we make the right sustainable choices? According to a study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, there are seven sins of greenwashing that can help consumers identify brands that are engaging in this practice. Let us explore one at a time:

1. Sin of the hidden trade-off: this sin occurs when companies portray their product as sustainable based on a limited number of attributes while ignoring other important environmental considerations. A practical example is plastic bottles that are 70% recycled plastic, but companies do not mention the amount of carbon emissions released during manufacturing or transportation.

2. Sin of no proof: in this case, products are advertised with environmental claims that are not backed by reliable certification. If you look closely at the supermarket, you may find toilet paper that is supposedly made from recycled material, but there is no proof of this. As consumers, it's our job to see if the claims are supported by facts and details like a transparent supply chain or life cycle analysis.

3. Sin of vagueness: this happens when a claim is not completely clear and can be misunderstood by the consumer. A very common example is products that claim to be "all-natural", but "all-natural" does not mean sustainable, because elements such as arsenic or uranium are elements that occur naturally, but are also toxic.

4. Sin of False Labeling: a false label is a false certification by a third party that does not actually exist.

5. Sin of irrelevance: this phenomenon occurs when companies state irrelevant or unhelpful information for people looking for sustainable products. For example, when companies state that their products are free of chlorofluorocarbons, it may sound like a good thing, but in reality the Montreal Protocol bans CFCs.

6. Sin of lesser of two evils: this tricky practice occurs when a claim within the product category is true but diverts the consumer's attention from the larger environmental impact of the entire category. Companies that sell organic cigarettes represent a clear example.

7. Sin of fibbing: this sin refers to companies that make false claims: they advertise to be Rainforest certified, but it's not true.


The Green Trap is also a phenomenon that customers have to be aware of. The green visuals trap occurs when companies use blooming flowers, trees, or eco-friendly logos to trick consumers' minds. To better understand this phenomenon, let us analyze one example of greenwashing in more detail: the case of Fiji Water. Fiji Water is one of the most famous water brands, sponsored by many celebrities. It is called a sustainable brand and a "carbon-negative" product, but when we examine the environmental impact of the production of these bottles, the result is not what we would expect. In 2007, the Newport Trial Group of California decided to sue the Fiji Company for misrepresentation. The water company claimed to be "carbon-negative," meaning that it removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases. What they were actually doing was what's called "forward crediting": they were getting credits for reducing carbon emissions that had not happened yet. In other words, they were not taking more carbon out of the environment than they were producing, but they were claiming credits for carbon reductions that may or may not happen in the future.

On its website, Fiji Water affirms that it has been a carbon-negative brand since 2008 and will continue to offset its emissions, but according to the forward credit, the offset does not have to be current; it can simply be forward-looking. In fact, Fiji Water has announced that the offset needed to make the mark fully carbon-negative will not be achieved before 2037. Many researchers find it unacceptable that Fiji Water is charging twice as much as other competitors by convincing consumers that their water is helping the environment, when in fact they are doing the exact opposite. Fiji Water is also a clear example of greenwashing because it is taken from a Fijian aquifer, bottled in a diesel-powered factory in China, and then shipped across the ocean to countries around the world.


Easy Jet less CO2

Another well-known example is EasyJet's 2008 claim that its planes emit 22% less carbon dioxide than other planes flying the same route. The Advertising Standards Agency classified this claim as false: in fact, the company did not make it clear that the advertisement referred to emissions per passenger and that EasyJet was able to reduce emissions simply because their planes can carry more passengers than other traditional airlines.

Coca Cola

The world-renowned carbonated beverage brand cannot be beat. According to Break Free from Plastic's annual report, Coca Cola was ranked as the world's biggest plastic polluter for the second year in a row. In 2020, the company made the situation worse by announcing that it will not stop using plastic bottles, as they are popular with customers. However, the company said it would tackle packaging waste, with a spokesperson stating, "We have a global commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so none of it ends up as waste or in the oceans and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles. Bottles made from 100% recycled plastic are now available in 18 markets around the world, and growing." That's why the Earth Island Institute filed charges against Coca Cola a few months ago for falsely claiming to be a sustainable brand when in fact it is the largest plastic producer in the world.


Big banks Unfortunately, this strategy is not only used by fashion, cosmetics or food companies, but also by financial institutions: Bank of China, HSBC, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and many others claim to invest in sustainable opportunities. However, according to the Rainforest Action Network's 2020 report, these banks are still lending huge amounts of capital to the most polluting industries that contribute the most to deforestation and fossil carbon emissions.

Greenwashing is a common practice still used by many companies. Consumers have a lot of power because they can choose what they will and will not buy. We also have a great responsibility, which is to buy with a clear conscience. In order to do this, it is important to know the strategies used by companies to appear more "eco-friendly". Once we have learned how to recognize greenwashing, our concern is to make ethical purchasing decisions.

Written by Valeria Unich

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