Fifty Shades of Green
Greenwashing Hijacks Sustainability
When you spend more money on creating a green image of your work rather than striving to actually make your processes more sustainable - you are effectively Green Washing.
The term comes from another word - Whitewashing - and its ability to immediately make things look white and good.
Now why would anyone do that?
Defining Greenwashing
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash
Greenwashing (a compound word modelled on "whitewash"), also called "green sheen", is a form of spin in which green PR or green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly. Evidence that an organization is greenwashing often comes from pointing out the spending differences: when significantly more money or time has been spent advertising being "green" (that is, operating with consideration for the environment), than is actually spent on environmentally sound practices. Greenwashing efforts can range from changing the name or label of a product to evoke the natural environment on a product that contains harmful chemicals to multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns portraying highly polluting energy companies as eco-friendly. Publicized accusations of greenwashing have contributed to the term's increasing use. (Wikipedia)
The complexity of Sustainability
There are several layers to determining whether a particular product or process is truly sustainable or not. Often it requires measurement of several criteria over long periods of time to be able to pronounce the actual footprint of the product or process. None of this study is immediately profitable to companies, even though in the long run truly green products are beneficial to the natural environment and to human society.

This complexity of determination, creates much confusion among producers and consumers and makes it tougher to make business choices. Even as a consumer, it is hard to tell whether an organic food product wrapped in plastic is finally better than a conventional food product with chemicals in it, sold open on the streets.
Green washing and Profitability
Companies often take advantage of this perceptual and conceptual confusion and lack of clarity, to convince their client base about their own greenness. In a financial set up where profitability is the ultimate measure of success, the green tag has started roping in profits, as consumers become more and more aware of the current environmental crisis.

As per Wikipedia,

'Many corporate structures use greenwashing as a way to repair public perception of their brand. The structuring of corporate disclosure is often set up so as to maximize perceptions of legitimacy. However, a growing body of social and environmental accounting research finds that, in the absence of external monitoring and verification, greenwashing strategies amount to corporate posturing and deception.'

The term Greenwashing was first coined by the envionmentalist Jay Westerveld when the hotel industry started asking people to reuse towels to 'save the environment'. The hotels were doing nothing to reduce their massive energy usage on the other hand. Advertising campaigns by builders in India, show hoardings with trees and birds, to advertise their latest construction projects - which on site have rarely a green presence. Sometimes, toxic ingredients in products are described differently to reduce the classification of the overall product as 'toxic'.
Green Claim regulations
When marketing overtakes reality, deceptive claims may be made by advertisers. In 1970, when the first Earth Day was instated , companies realised that an appearance of being green would increase their sales. 300 million dollars were spent on advertisements for being clean and green - eight times more the money than was actually spent on reducing pollution.

The claims being made by companies were not being checked nor regulated by governments in the beginning. Large oil companies like Chevron, and chemical lobbies like the American Chemistry Council, started setting up their own standards of regulation which were loose and deceptive.

In 2010 a study was done showing that 4.5% of products tested were found to be truly green as opposed to 2% in 2009. In 2009 2,739 products claimed to be green while in 2010 the number rose to 4,744. The same study in 2010 found that 95% percent of the consumer products claiming to be green were not green at all.

As the understanding of environmental impact increased, governments started putting regulations in place that would monitor trade practices and set clear marketing practices. Australia, Canada, Norway , the UK and the USA are countries that now have established such Green Claim regulations. Qualifications, certifications, disclosures, distinctions, overstatements and comparisons were some of the aspects that were covered by these regulations including the implications of using terms such as organic, non toxic, eco friendly etc to describe a product.
The Green Washing Index
To counter this deception by large companies, efforts were made to expose Greenwashing. In 2002, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the Greenwashing Academy hosted the Greenwash Academy Awards. The ceremony awarded companies like BP, ExxonMobil, and even the US Government for their elaborate greenwashing ads and support for greenwashing. The Greenwashing Index, created by the University of Oregon in partnership with EnviroMedia Social Marketing, allows examples of greenwashing to be uploaded and rated by the public.
Watch an episode of Lousy Labels - a series by Canadian television that aims to expose the empty claims made by product manufacturers to appear green.
The Indian Scenario
In India, the regulation of green claims is still very nascent. Terms like 'herbal', 'eco friendly', 'organic' and 'non toxic' are used prominently on packaging but very loosely defined. Explanations on packaging may use highly technical terms that the common man may not understand. Often the ingredients in the product are not disclosed at all. When a tea company tries to convince us that they are protecting forests endangered by their plantations, or a cigarette company speaks of green smoke, consumers need to ask a few more questions to find out what they really mean. Another very easy way is to use images that do not at all represent reality.

Organisations like the Advertising Standards Council of India and the Consumer Courts are supposed to safeguard the rights of the consumer to know and to make advertisers accountable for the messages they put in the market.

Studies done on advertising in India reveal that 67% of the claims studied lacked specificity, 55.8% images used were misleading and only 3.3% advertisements had certificates to back up their claims.
( Read the study here )
Green or Greenwashing: Large business largely mislead
Become a conscious consumer
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when you are in doubt about the authenticity of a products claims...
1. What do they stand to gain from this claim? Is there a hidden agenda?
2. Where is the proof?
3. Is the claim specific enough or does it use vague, board terms?
4. Is this information relevant to the product?
5. Is this claim distracting me from something worse the company may be involved in?
6. Is this true? Or is it a lie?
7. Are they associating their name with something green just to look good?
The seven sins of Greenwashing
The Croak is a weekly environmental newsletter put out by the eCoexist team. It is the voice of the environment on its last legs, the final croak that can either be a plea for attention or a call of triumph as the frogs jump out of the well of ignorance and denial. Satirical, urgent and wise the newsletter brings to your attention, topics of global environmental relevance as well as emerging encouraging alternatives. Put together by a team of passionate Nature lovers, The Croak hopes to look at the environmental crisis in its face. It is a tool to reconnect readers to Nature, through questioning and self reflection. To understand the outer environment as a reflection of our own inner state, individually and as a species. And to take responsibility for enabling change.
If you would like to contribute articles on ecology consciousness and sustainability please get in touch with us.
Use the PayTM QR code on the right to send us a donation today. The eCoexist Foundation is a not for profit Section 25 company registered in Pune.
Please send us an email with your details at [email protected] once you have made the payment so we can send you a receipt. Currently we take donations from India only. We thank you sincerely!