Environment

What is greenwashing and what can you do about it?

The term greenwashing has been thrown about a lot recently, but what actually is it and what can you do about it?

Final Day of Impossible Rebellion - March for Nature, London 4th September 2021

Protests are ramping up ahead of COP26. Image: Steve Eason/Flickr

With COP26 taking place and activists pushing for more effective action on climate change, governments, companies and individuals are feeling the pressure to live up to expectations

Unfortunately, this can encourage exaggerated claims and consequent accusations of a phenomenon named ‘greenwashing.’ 

Over recent months, allegations of greenwashing have hit the headlines, targeting companies from H&M to Shell and Ryanair. Research published in June established that fashion brands continually mislead consumers in an attempt to appear greener than they are. 

What is greenwashing? 

There are numerous definitions across the internet regarding how to identify greenwashing and how to categorise it. Many refer to creating false impressions, misleading information or deliberate deception.

Greenwashing is better seen as a broad umbrella term referring to numerous activities, ranging from the absolute and deliberately constructed lie, through to a genuinely accidental exaggeration or misrepresentation. 

Professor Frances Bowen from the University of East Anglia, who has specialised in corporate environmental policy for more than 20 years, said: “Greenwashing is about painting a greener picture on the outside than what is actually happening on the inside. 

“Greenwashing isn’t quite the same as say fake news. Fake news is really deliberate. Like, I am going to put this story into the world and it’s just not true. Whereas with greenwashing there’s often elements of truth in it.

“It’s more about exaggeration, or deflecting our attention, or trying to divert our attention somewhere else to the good stuff, rather than seeing the bad stuff.”

Placed on a scale and seen as an umbrella term as opposed to a definitive definition, there are various types of greenwashing, some of which are not as clear cut as others. Bowen referred to a couple of examples including radical transparency, whereby the average consumer is deliberately overloaded with information as a way of preventing them both understanding and questioning the actions of the company. 

“Another type is called selective disclosure,” she continued. “Instead of telling the story about my whole performance, I’m going to deliberately just tell you about the good bits. Hypothetically speaking, if we take a soft drinks company, there’s loads of water inside the product inside the bottle and there’s also loads of water used in making the bottle and cleaning the bottle.

“So instead of disclosing my entire water usage as a company, I might instead talk about a fabulous community project I’m doing in India to bring fresh water to a community in my sustainability report. It’s not that that’s not true, it’s not fake news, it’s absolutely true. It’s just kind of missing the point.”

Fabiola Schneider is sustainable finance research co-lead at GreenWatch, an organisation which identifies claims which are likely to constitute greenwashing in order to help inform investors. 

The company uses AI to identify green claims, and then human analysts compare the claims with the concerned organisation’s actual policy. 

“You have to differentiate between absolute claims and relative claims,” Schneider said. “So it’s a big difference between saying, ‘I’m the absolute best in the entire world,’ and saying, ‘I’m the best among my peers.’

“Time factors are also important, so there’s a difference between saying, ‘I was the best last year,’ ‘I am currently the best,’ or ‘I’m trying to be the best next year.’”

How do you know if a company is greenwashing? 

There is a lot of information available for consumers, and ultimately the best place to look is online. Packaging may also have details, and certain supermarkets and shops also make green pledges from removing plastic packaging to using LED lighting within stores. 

“The trouble is whether you can decipher it. Various pressure groups will have listings and rankings, but it can be challenging to understand the information,” Bowen said. 

Additionally, certain pledges such as Sainsbury’s promise to become Net Zero by 2040, do not take account of supply chains. 

“To add a further problem to the mix, it’s actually quite hard for companies to make absolute claims as often they don’t even know themselves. Companies may have thousands and thousands of suppliers,” explained Bowen. 

There are also some tools online for checking a company’s sustainability policies – good on you is one website which offers ratings of clothing companies based on their environmental and labour policies.

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How can you stop greenwashing? 

When faced with a claim that you’re unsure about, particularly when it involves a large company speaking about a field you are not an expert in, it can be difficult to know what the best thing to do is. 

“There are experts around in various advocacy groups which is a useful way for for some of this behaviour to be questioned,” explained Bowen.

“As a consumer, social media is one way you can react, the best way is simply not to buy the product. If you’re in any way concerned that you’re being misled, use your consumer power, use your voter power.” 

A number of Instagram accounts have been set up to address questionable practises and claims. While #greenwashing is frequently used on Twitter by users who have concerns about certain practices. 

Schneider also highlighted social media as a powerful tool: “As an individual, obviously, you’re not going to go and sue the company. But if a company is greenwashing, call them out for it on social media – get critical. Whenever you encounter a claim, just always do a check and consider whether it’s plausible or not.”

Is greenwashing as bad as people say? 

“There are worse things that can happen, outright lying is worse, and doing absolutely nothing is worse,” explained Bowen. “I’m not saying greenwashing is good, but at least if companies are greenwashing, we’re talking about it. If we keep asking questions, as voters and as consumers, then gradually it will improve the quality of the conversation.

“Talking about green policy also creates a social pressure. The research tells us that companies are very aware of what other companies like them are doing.

“This is where things like ratings and environmental awards are important. Sometimes those are criticised for being greenwashing, you get an award, but do you really deserve the award? However, at least that draws attention to others who also want to get that award. It’s a very nuanced space, but something to think about.” 

Schneider was of the opposite opinion. She explained that greenwashing has the ability to hamper progress towards sustainability development goals. 

“The EU really has called for sustainable finance policy to tackle this and discourage greenwashing and to develop tools like ours that would spot it across the market,” she said. “If you can’t rely on your data you’re unable to make progress. 

“It can also create a false sense of hope that everything is fine and that we don’t need to do any more. It’s all green.” 

Is greenwashing on the rise?

The number of accusations of greenwashing has led to businesses and organisations taking greater care over environmental claims they make.

From the beginning of next year, the Competition and Markets Authority will review misleading green claims with the aim of taking further action against organisations if necessary. They have also recently published the Green Claims Code, which details six instructions for companies to follow when publicising environmental claims.

Bowen explained: “You used to be able to get away with not really saying very much on the environment, but these days, there’s an expectation you must say something.

“And that’s one of the reasons why greenwashing happens, because companies find themselves in a situation where they have to say something. They try to say something that’s true, but they also try and say something that makes them look good. 

“I think one of the things that’s really important is thinking about the long term consequences. It does generate a cynicism among consumers of course, but one of the positive things it does is to at least put the environment on the agenda.

“Companies therefore do have to talk about it, and they can’t talk about it for long without doing anything at all.”

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