Greenwashing: what is it and why does it matter?

Greenwashing. You’ve almost certainly heard of it, but what exactly does it mean and what is being done about it? Digital and Communications Manager, Ben Stallworthy, looks at the practice and why we should be vigilant.

Put simply, greenwashing is the practice of a company playing up its green credentials in order to seem more environmentally friendly with the aim of selling more products.

Not only are these companies deceiving consumers to prey on those who count environmental impact as an important factor when making their choice, but there is also “hidden” damage to the environment that is being obscured by their claims.

The truth is, the time and money these companies spend on appearing to be green would be much better directed to lessening their environmental impact. But there is some good news. Companies are starting to be called out and, as we’ll see later, there is even some legislation on the way to deter would-be greenwashers.

WHO’s GUILTY?

There are myriad examples of companies engaging in greenwashing, but I have picked out a couple of stories from the last few days to highlight.

When it comes to greenwashing, one of the biggest culprits is the fossil fuel industry, including the likes of BP and Shell. Global Witness has analysed the activity of these two giants across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in the UK since the 2021 launch of the Green Claims Code, a six-point checklist set out by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to check a company’s environmental claims are genuinely green.

Spoiler alert: Global Witness found that both BP and Shell were making misleading environmental claims in their advertising. They portray an image of two companies investing in clean energy and electric vehicles, whereas the reality is those investments are “dwarfed by ongoing and planned spending on fossil fuel exploitation, at levels that are not compliant with the Paris Agreement.” This particularly sticks in the craw given the recent announcement that BP’s profits more than doubled to £23b in 2022.

Greenwashing: behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.

Another recent example was the marketing of Hyundai Motor UK. They claimed their new hydrogen-powered Nexo model was “beautifully clean” in terms of pollution. Their claim failed to take into account the pollution from brakes and tyre wear, which is apparently significant. The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the marketing was misleading and couldn’t be used again. 

Falling foul of new rules in the UK could soon have enormous consequences for companies, with civil penalties for big firms being as large as 10% of global turnover. This will be done under the new digital markets, competition and consumer bill.          

The platforming of these companies is also an issue that merits attention. The campaign Stop Funding Heat was set up in 2020, to counter “​​news sites and online platforms [that] readily spread climate lies in the pursuit of sales, clicks or vested interests.” This form of misinformation is a significant problem, so full credit to the organisations who are taking responsibility for sorting the wheat from the chaff.

#IDONTBUYIT

Our latest campaign, launched in October last year, is called We Don’t Buy It and focuses on overconsumption, particularly in the Global North, and the fact that we are asking for more from the planet than it can provide. The first specific focus of the campaign is Apple and the idea that we need to buy new things to replace those which are already doing everything we need. 

Apple’s environmental reporting is much more comprehensive than that of many companies, and it is making significant progress in reducing its impact in a number of key areas. Consumers need a far higher level of knowledge of complex environmental issues than most people possess, however, to unpick and understand all the claims and evidence it presents. Ultimately, the burden of evaluating companies’ environmental credentials cannot lie with consumers.

It can be argued that whatevr its sincerity and progress, as long as Apple persists with their fundamentally harmful model of producing, marketing, and selling marginally changed new products every year, claims of environmental commitment amount to a form of greenwashing. Perpetuating the excessive consumption of things we don’t really need is deeply harmful to the environment. That’s why we’re calling on Apple to take the lead and adopt a truly planet-friendly approach.

What can we do?

The practice of greenwashing is widespread, so hyper-vigilance is essential whenever making a purchase. Always question any environmental claim made by a company and follow these tips for consumers laid out by the UK’s CMA:

For consumers, understanding all the implications of environmental claims and performance is very difficult. We must hold companies to account when they fail to provide the information we need and can understand. We must also demand that governments do more to regulate and simplify the reporting of companies’ environmental performance.

NEWSLETTER

Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our work.