Green Fields Blue Sky

Greenwashing will simply no longer wash

Our radars are tuning into the truth beneath the messaging

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
3 minute read
Green Fields Blue Sky

As legislation enshrining the Federal Labor Government’s 2030 emissions reduction targets is introduced into parliament, the green advertising megatrend will explode.

More and more businesses will link their products and services with the environment, argue what they offer promotes a green lifestyle and assert what they do is environmentally responsible.

Some of those claims will pass the “green test” while others will be nothing more than “greenwashing”.

Most of us have heard of the term whitewashing, used to describe the actions of brand owners to deliberately conceal unpleasant, scandalous or incriminating situations by manipulating facts or not presenting the full picture.

Greenwashing is less well-known though fast gaining in prominence.

If you have ever purchased something because the packaging had the word “natural” on it or looked recycled, you might have been greenwashed.

Greenwashing involves the use of unethical marketing tactics to exploit consumers’ growing sensitivity to buying in an environmentally conscious way.

Through false, misleading or vague claims, buyers are tricked into purchasing what they believe are ecologically sound products and services, even though there are no real benefits to the environment.

Many brand owners greenwash their customers through use of eco-styled imagery etched into marketing materials or packaging.

Pictures of trees or plants, idyllical green landscapes, a baby polar bear or two and the use of green-coloured packaging can all lead the consumer to mistakenly believe a product or service is environmentally friendly.

In the absence of any supporting details, this type of imagery can obscure the negative impact of a product or service on the environment.

Genuine eco-friendly products generally use simpler images and plain packaging.

While there are those companies who turn to eco-labels to lure unsuspecting consumers, some use deceptive labels.

Look out for labels like “100 per cent organic”, “ethically sourced”, “biodegradable”, “not tested on animals”, “made from real ingredients”, “no harmful chemicals” or even “family friendly”.

The truth is often very different, particularly when those labels do not point to specific information.

Other businesses create an image of being environmentally friendly and sustainable but have a non-environmentally friendly or unethical trade-off.

As a case in point, a shampoo manufacturer tells consumers it donates a percentage of profits to support an endangered species. At the same time, it uses an ingredient obtained by destroying the natural habitat of the same animal.

A fast-food company advertises it has replaced plastic straws with paper ones to give the impression it was doing its bit to cut consumption of single-use plastics – but the paper replacement straws are not recyclable.

A clothing store markets the fact its products make use of recycled materials – but hides the fact the garments are produced in an overseas sweatshop.

Volkswagen committed one of the more serious acts of greenwashing. Subsequently described as the “diesel dupe”, Volkswagen admitted that about 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with a so-called defeat device that masked the full extent of emissions when a test was undertaken.

With more brands jumping on the green bandwagon, the practice of greenwashing is becoming harder to spot.

Therefore, your “greenwashing radar” should immediately sound the alarm if you encounter advertising, social media promotions or websites that make use of fluffy language (think: earth friendly, certified, green), use jargon or information that only a scientist could check or understand or provide no information to support their environmental claims.

We should approach every claim about a product or service with a healthy level of scepticism. And if we suspect a brand is greenwashing us, we should play it safe and seek an alternative product.

Greenwashing makes brands appear more environmentally sustainable than they are.

It distracts us from properly investing our energy into addressing significant environmental issues like global warming, pollution and loss of biodiversity.

We buy products and services thinking we are helping to make our environment more sustainable yet our purchasing efforts often end up doing little to address environmental concerns – and in some cases actually make matters worse.

Next time you buy bottled water because the label tells you it comes from a natural spring or it displays pictures of a couple of healthy deer sipping from a spring, consider whether your choice of brand has been influenced by spurious green claims.

No matter what is on display, your greenwashing radar should quickly tell you that bottled water is designed to be single use and contributes massively to the plastic waste crisis around the globe.