by Nicole Carbone
Nicole is a Media and Communications student at Guelph-Humber and volunteers as a Sustainability Ambassador with Humber’s Office of Sustainability. Nicole is interested in nature-based solutions and green infrastructure.
You can connect with Nicole via LinkedIn.
Have you ever bought a product that labelled itself as “sustainable”? How about “eco-friendly”? What if those products contributed nothing positive to the environment but pretty packing and compelling copy? This is called greenwashing, and it has been a major problem in the marketing world as companies are increasingly being called out for this action.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is defined as certain marketing tactics that mislead consumers to believe their products are more sustainable than they actually are. The term was actually coined in 1986 by environmental activist Jay Westerveld, but has grown in popularity over the last ten or so years.
One of the reasons for this increase in popularity is the growing eco-consciousness of society, especially in Gen Z. Gen Z is known for being very aware of and involved with environmental and social issues, and because of this, have higher expectations for companies to do their part. Companies have caught on to this, and have adjusted their marketing practices to accommodate, which has led to another reason for the rise in greenwashing. Companies know that if they can make you feel good about your purchase, the more likely it is that you will come back. It doesn’t help that the laws surrounding greenwashing are vague at best, which leads to marketers pushing the boundaries for what is supposedly allowed.
When there is an urge for people to buy more sustainably, and a desire for companies to please their consumers, the result is often greenwashing. Although greenwashing is becoming harder to spot, more companies are being called out which gives examples to the types of things consumers should be looking out for. Let’s dive into three companies that are notorious for greenwashing, and what can be learned from their mistakes.
Oil and gas is one of the last industries that comes to mind when sustainability is mentioned. Which is why when Shell tried to pass off gas as renewable energy, it raised some eyebrows. In Shell’s 2021 annual report, they had stated that 12% of its capital expenditure was put into Renewables and Energy Solutions. However, things aren’t always as they seem. After some investigating, Global Witness took to the US financial regular to launch a greenwashing complaint. They found that only 1.5% of its total expenditure went towards wind and solar power generation. They believed that Shell’s statements mislead investors and the public by labelling fossil fuels as renewable energy.
The lesson learned from Shell is to pay close attention to greenwashing buzzwords and do your own research instead of taking them at face value. Words like “renewable” and “clean” are thrown around by many companies without any definition or quantification. Companies need to move away from using these vague words, and individuals need to be aware of the common words and phrases that could be used to mislead them.
With the fashion industry emitting more carbon than international flights and maritime shipping combined, it has long been scrutinized for the negative impacts it has on the environment. One of the first fashion companies to come to mind for many is H&M, which has been under scrutiny multiple times for greenwashing and hit by two lawsuits.
The most recent lawsuit was against H&M’s Conscious Choice collection. Despite making claims to be made “with a little extra consideration for the planet”, the clothes were almost entirely made of recycled polyester, which is a fabric that despite being recycled, will still end up in landfills and release microplastics. This points to a bigger issue that fast fashion has. Can the model of fast fashion ever be sustainable?
The lesson learned from H&M is to take a look past the companies itself and into the industry as whole. Fast fashion encourages unethical labour and excessive consumption as trend cycles are moving faster than ever before. As much as it is important to call out companies that are greenwashing, it is equally important to look at how your consumerism habits fit in.
IKEA is a company that is known for their hard to assemble furniture and meatballs, but they are less known for the many sustainability efforts they have made. In 2020, IKEA implemented a buy-back policy to start moving towards a more circular business model. They are also working to eliminate all non-rechargeable alkaline batteries, and switching their lighting range to LEDs.
All of this is good, however, the company came under fire in 2020. IKEA is the largest consumer of wood in the world, and it was brought to light that the beechwood they use was illegally sourced from the forests of Ukraine’s Carpathian region, which is home to many endangered species. To make it worse, the illegally sourced wood was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, who is supposed to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. This raises questions not only about IKEA but about the ethics of the FSC as an organization.
The lesson learned from IKEA is that even companies that have sustainable practices can still greenwash. It is extremely important as a consumer to continue to do research past the marketing, regardless of the company’s record.
All three of these cases are relevant examples of greenwashing, but only tell part of the story. These are just some of the companies that have been called out; there are many more companies that use vague words in their marketing to convey an image of being more sustainable than they actually are.
But with so many watchful eyes on how these companies are currently marketing, they face another major challenge. Some marketers are scared of promoting any sort of sustainable change in case they get called out for greenwashing. Companies need to find a way of promoting their sustainability efforts without stepping into performative marketing and exaggerated claims.
One way they can do this is by focusing on transparency instead of perfection. Most consumers are not looking for a company to go from one hundred to net zero in no time. They want to see fundamental change, and that happens to come with a slower timeframe. Additionally, when companies do their part, individuals are more likely to believe in their marketing and buy their products, which will start to rebuild trust back in the client to consumer relationship.
Ultimately, a better world in marketing starts with transparent companies that are working towards a more sustainable future, and educated individuals that hold them accountable when they are bending the truth.