Greenwashing: lies you were unknowingly sold

With Greta Thunberg sailing around the world, another successful Veganuary over and done with, and Australia still suffering through their most extreme bushfires in history, acknowledging the climate crisis is unavoidable.

While the main contributors to the climate crisis are large corporations and industries polluting the air with copious amounts of greenhouse gases, individuals have been increasingly keen to do what they can to reduce their impact. This might be using public transport more, buying a reusable water bottle or refusing a plastic bag. All of these are great! 

However, this leaves scope for lots of companies to buy into a movement that is fast becoming a more dominant part of society. It’s a huge market and it’s only getting bigger. As more people are actively looking to reduce their consumption of certain goods, sales of things like bamboo toothbrushes and reusable straws are higher than they have ever been. This is also great!

It’s here that ‘greenwashing’ can be a slight problem. Simply put, greenwashing is the art of making a product or service seem ‘green’, or more environmentally-friendly, when something about the company is not following suit. Another way of putting it; all show and no go? Style over substance? Fur coat, no knickers? It’s the scam of making you think you’re investing your money in a worthwhile change, when you might just be investing in a superficial company claiming to be a ‘better’ choice for the environment. It will often be the case that companies care about getting your money, not your support for a good cause.

You’ll have seen examples of this everywhere without realising it; buying metal straws to reduce your plastic consumption – again, great! – but they’re packaged in single-use plastic. Surely this is somewhat contradictory to the entire purpose of why they’re being sold, which is to reduce plastic waste? And those not-plastic-plastic cups you get at summer events that are made of plant starch so can be composted? A lot of the time they need to be sprayed with a certain chemical to start breaking down in compost, which isn’t widely available, so most of the cups end up in landfill anyway. Companies using them look and probably feel better about their impact, while there is normally nothing of substance to be proud of.

This isn’t a new phenomenon; even a decade ago, before the public really knew how much trouble we were getting ourselves into, greenwashing was being used to dupe the public into making ‘environmentally conscious’ decisions; EasyJet once claimed that their flights emitted 22% less carbon dioxide than other companies on the same flight path. However, this was a gross manipulation of the facts; their planes had more seats, and therefore per passenger the emissions rate was lower, but the plane was still emitting the same amount of carbon as any other airline. This is just one example of how easy it is for the facts to be twisted to best suit companies’ agendas, rather than saying outright what the public don’t want to know. It is an unethical breach of consumers’ trust, but unfortunately is the way for most businesses looking to make a chunky profit.

Ultimately, greenwashing is going to continue to happen in all areas of society the same way that there have always been scams and frauds and deceptions. This might come as a surprise to some people, or just a disappointing acknowledgement of the truth about humans and corporate greed. Sometimes it’s harder to find out the truth, like above, but other times it’s frustratingly obvious; the Welsh town of Chepstow in 2018 celebrated being officially plastic-free by hanging a big fuck-off plastic banner in the middle of town, although that one does just seem to be an unbelievably dumb mistake rather than trying to be fraudulent.

Either way, the good news is that greenwashing is, for the most part, avoidable. It might take a bit more of a conscious effort to think ahead, or inform yourself about companies that you’re thinking of giving your cash to, but it’s arguably worth it if it means you’re making a positive change in something you believe in.