Ecological awareness and care for sustainability are increasingly becoming an imperative today. Conscious consumers actively choose to buy products and services from companies that operate in an ethical and environmentally friendly manner, leaving behind as small an impact as possible. Unfortunately, some companies ruthlessly exploit this positive trend using a series of marketing tricks to falsely portray their products and practices as “green” even though this is not the case.
This deeply problematic and potentially very harmful practice is known as “greenwashing.” In order to expose it and ultimately eradicate it, all stakeholders – from industry, government, media and civil society to every individual consumer – must act decisively and swiftly.
To fully understand what greenwashing is and why it poses such a problem for society and the planet, let’s look at some of the most common examples of this unethical practice:
- A company places unclear labels such as “eco”, “bio” or “natural” on its products without any evidence or independent verification
- A company aggressively highlights some minor initiatives like recycling packaging or partially reducing plastics, while concealing its much greater negative environmental impact through other aspects of its operations
- A company uses generic positive language about caring for the planet, sustainability and a “green transition” while taking almost no meaningful action to mitigate its harmful impact on the environment
- An oil company runs ads about planting a few trees or installing electric car charging stations, while simultaneously causing massive pollution by exploiting fossil fuels
- A food company puts idyllic images of nature on product packaging when its production involves deforestation and water pollution with pesticides
Such marketing deceits have multiple adverse effects. Consumers are confused and often misled into believing certain products and companies are environmentally friendly. Organizations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth warn that greenwashing undermines those companies that really make considerable efforts to reduce their harmful environmental impact.
Moreover, experts point out that greenwashing delays the fundamental changes urgently needed to preserve the planet. Instead of investing in real initiatives, companies spend money on marketing campaigns, creating a dangerous illusion that the situation is improving when in fact it is not. “Greenwashing” also breeds cynicism and consumer distrust towards all companies.
To tackle this profound problem, all stakeholders – industry, government and consumers – must take decisive action without delay:
- Government regulators must enact laws that preclude greenwashing, impose rigorous industry oversight, and levy steep fines for violators to ensure transparency about real environmental impact.
- Independent civil society organizations need to conduct audits, investigate cases of greenwashing, and name and shame perpetrators.
- The media has a key role in raising awareness and exposing and condemning examples of greenwashing without succumbing to sensationalism.
- The education system must systematically teach children and youth about greenwashing and critical thinking.
- Consumers must be thoroughly educated on how to recognize greenwashing and which signs to look out for, and must actively call out and boycott offenders.
- Ethical investors and employees within companies can also apply pressure for greater transparency and accountability.
- It is necessary to establish independent institutions that will verify environmental claims and award certifications in order to provide consumers with clear information.
Although eradicating greenwashing will be an arduous and lengthy process, it is clear that it can and must be done. Through a combination of regulation, education, activism, ethical business practices and awareness building, this deeply ingrained unethical practice can be curbed. This will finally ensure that consumers can make informed choices, and companies who truly invest efforts into environmental protection will be justly rewarded.
Together we can and must defeat greenwashing and build a fairer and more sustainable society for all.