Green or Greenwashing?

Divya Mehra

In my previous blog, titled ‘Responsible Consumerism Comes at a Cost’, I have highlighted the importance of being a responsible consumer, and how more and more people are choosing environmentally sustainable or simply green products to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. In doing so, increasingly, people are trying to choose products that are labelled as “environmentally sustainable”, “eco-friendly”, “green”, etc. People are also willing to pay more for products that claim to be eco-friendly, and large companies/ major corporations are using this sentiment as their marketing strategy.

How many times have you visited a store and picked up or preferred a product that had green coloured packaging or an image of a leaf, flower, or some natural feature printed on the label of the product. I know I have done it several times. Subconsciously, I pick up products that somehow advertise themselves as eco-friendly, without realising and researching the actual manufacturing practices of the company.

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Image 1: The use of the colour green in packaging is a greenwashing technique used by several companies.

While some businesses try to adopt sustainable practices, there are a significant number of other companies and major corporations who just claim to be sustainable, while in reality, their practices have a significant environmental footprint. When companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable, it is likely a sign of greenwashing. Greenwashing is a portrayal of false impressions about the product as “green” by providing misleading information about companies and their process of functioning . Thus, greenwashing is the dissemination of false or deceptive information regarding an organisation’s environmental strategies, goals, motivations, and actions (Becker & Potucek, 2013). There are several instances where companies release a new line of green products or green programmes claiming to be environmentally sustainable but the core of the business is still polluting or completely unsustainable.  This is not just misleading but also acts as a barrier in furthering environmental initiatives. It misdirects the well-intentioned consumer who actually believe in environmental causes and the need to be responsible customers.

The term “greenwashing” was originally coined by prominent environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. Westerveld highlighted the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each bathroom encouraging guests to reuse their towels to help the hotel conserve water. Despite the message, the intended outcome was not so much the conservation of water, but rather saving money on laundry costs while appearing to be environmentally friendly to consumers (Orange & Cohen, 2010). The term is now used to refer to all industries that adopt outwardly green acts with the underlying purpose of increasing profits or luring more and more customers in the name of green initiatives.

As consumers are becoming interested in eco-friendly lifestyles, companies and manufacturers are also increasingly adopting illusionary greenwashing techniques. In order to choose wisely, we as consumers can  research or look out for few things before buying a product. Popular buzzwords such as ‘green’, eco-friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘chemical free’ etc. may attract a consumer to buy the product but oftentimes they are just empty claims with no genuine description of the practices or the details of how the product is eco friendly. If a company can support their eco-friendly claim with hard data, they have every reason to make it available to consumers. However, if that information isn’t provided, you’ve probably spotted a case of greenwashing. For example, H&M, one of the largest fast-fashion brands in the world, introduced a ‘conscious’ collection. The brand claims they are using more sustainable material for this collection but they do not provide much detail on how these materials will actually be better for the environment. Also, the ‘conscious’ collection makes up a small portion of their clothing. The majority of their products are mass-produced, constantly changing with new seasonal trends, and are made of unsustainable materials.

Similarly, you will find store shelves flooded with products that claim to be packaged in recyclable plastic, but no company addresses the underlying issues of recycling a plastic product. The plastic is recycled only if it reaches the recycling plant. Almost every time when it is not disposed off properly, it ends up in landfills or in our oceans. In all, the world has produced 8.3 billion tonnes of original plastic but recycled only 9 per cent of it. In addition to this, plastic cannot be recycled infinitely because the recycling process continually downgrades the plastic’s quality, eventually to the point that it can no longer be used at all. The recycling process itself is complicated, expensive, and reaps unclear carbon-reduction results.

As consumers, we need to choose wisely and protect ourselves from getting tricked into false claims by companies, instead, we should support businesses that are actually making an effort to reduce their environmental footprint, that are transparent about their practice and share valid data with their customers. There may be no such thing as a truly sustainable product but some products definitely have a less environmental impact than others. Another way to check for greenwashing is by looking for green certificates and green labels that can provide information on the environmental credential of the product. As a general rule, third-party certifications are more valuable than self-certification or industry-sponsored systems. Look for labels that have standards for multiple environmental attributes or sustainable practices and evaluate the products at multiple levels. These can indicate a more significant sustainability effort than single-attribute ones like ‘100% Recycled’, and can help consumers choose smartly.

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Image 2: Organic product certification by the Government of India. Photo by Team Prakati

References

Divya Mehra
Divya Mehra

Divya is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Urban Ecology and Sustainability, Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). Her admiration of trees and forests started at a very young age. Her curiosity to understand the functioning of biodiversity and ecosystems led her to do her Masters in Environment and Development from the School of Human Ecology, Ambedkar University Delhi. She has been associated with a conservation organisation, working mostly on urbanisation and land-use change and its impact on forested areas.

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