As consumers take their contribution to the climate crisis seriously, conscious consumerism is on the rise. Across the North American continent, roughly 70% of consumers think it’s important that a brand is sustainable or eco-friendly. Globally, 40% of consumers consider themselves “purpose-driven,” meaning they choose to spend money with brands they believe align with their own personal values.
Around the world, businesses have responded to consumers’ growing taste for sustainable goods, rolling out “eco-friendly” products and services to keep up with the demand. That’s all well and good — but what happens when corporate sustainability pledges are merely empty promises riding on the coattails of genuine efforts?
Greenwashing: Flashy PR Under The Guise Of Environmentalism
You’ve probably seen messaging like this before: “this water bottle is eco-friendly because it’s made with 55% less plastic,” or this fashion retailer “puts the planet first.” Flashy ad copy like this gives consumers a vague picture of a brand’s sustainability pledges. But it doesn’t actually go into any specifics about what they’re really doing in terms of sustainability initiatives. What gives?
The official term is “greenwashing,” and it’s what some companies do to make people believe that they’re doing more to protect the environment than they really are. Companies funnel dollars into advertising and public relations campaigns that feature adorable animals and snappy, memorable copy. But taking a closer look at those ads reveals something odd: there’s no actual legal or official language involving the company’s sustainability plan. They’re simply buzzwords meant to pique the interest of conscious consumers.
Greenwashing In The Wild
Greenwashing manifests itself in different ways across the Internet and the media. The fashion industry especially has recently come under fire for its blatant greenwashing practices.
With over 4,000 stores worldwide (and an additional 8,000 in the pipeline), H&M is one of the biggest players in the fast fashion game. And while it’s known for pioneering trendy clothing at affordable prices, it hasn’t quite lived up to the modern consumer’s environmental standards. To resolve this, H&M launched a “green” clothing line called Conscious in 2019. “Shop our selection of sustainable fashion pieces that make you both look and feel good,” the Conscious line website states — but it doesn’t give consumers the details of how exactly H&M makes their Conscious pieces sustainable. Additionally, H&M’s plans for expansion and historic disregard for workers’ safety point to evidence that the brand may not be as committed to sustainability as it wants us to believe.
Greenwashing also exists in the energy sector, with traditional and renewable energy suppliers alike taking part in the slippery practice. In fact, biofuel, oil, gas and coal are some of the most greenwashed products in the United States.
A classic case of energy greenwashing occurred in the late 1980s, when oil and gas giant Chevron released an ad campaign touting its commitment to the environment. The campaign depicted Chevron employees protecting wild animals like bears and sea life. Despite the feel-good messaging and imagery, Chevron wasn’t able to produce any evidence that it was taking action to reduce its environmental impact.
Greenwashing in the energy sector can also occur in ways more subtle than airing adorable animal commercials. In the United Kingdom, for example, generators receive a “green certificate,” called a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificate (REGO) for every 1,000 units of renewable electricity produced (called a Renewable Energy Credit in the US). Generators then sell power and the REGOs to suppliers, but suppliers aren’t actually required to buy the renewable energy when they buy REGOs. This means that suppliers can purchase REGOs but still sell coal-generated electricity disguised as clean energy.
In the U.S., a recent investigative survey details major utilities promoting images of renewable energy generation, most notably solar, while quietly blocking clean energy policies on the side. In 2018, Pinnacle West Capital Corporation spent $38+ million to fight a clean energy ballot measure in Arizona, despite its flashy corporate responsibility webpage highlighting its commitment to renewables and its 2019 sustainability report. What’s more, a 2019 Energy and Policy Institute report states that many of the nation’s largest utilities are planning to slow down their decarbonization efforts over the next decade.
Washing Your Hands Of Greenwashing
Spotting greenwashing in action can be tricky. A good place to start with detecting greenwashing is to understand the “Six Deadly Sins of Greenwashing,” which classify the ways in which companies participate in greenwashing. Not only can these help consumers learn how to avoid purchasing from companies that greenwash, but they can also help businesses steer clear of the practice themselves.
It also helps to look for third-party organizations that back the claims of a company’s environmental practices (for instance, Fair Trade Certified). In the case of energy, there are several avenues business customers can take to ensure the green energy they purchase is actually green. One way is through use of PPAs, in which a developer designs and finances a renewable energy system for customers.
Greenwashing is misleading at best and malicious at worst, and it’s pervasive across almost every industry. However, eco-conscious consumers can avoid falling into its pitfalls by keeping a keen eye on the details of companies’ commitments to sustainability.