‘Greenwashing’, also sometimes known as ‘green sheen’, is becoming an increasingly common term in discussions around commercial and political sustainability. The term refers to the to an organisation’s exaggerated, misleading or even fraudulent sustainability claims around its products, services or processes in a bid to enhance their public perception without truly committing to more eco-friendly practices. Clearly, there is justified criticism around certain brands adopting such deceptive tactics. But has the problem of greenwashing been overstated? Is the term actually helpful? And is it even possible to give a precise definition?
Damaging environmental efforts
Let’s first outline some of the clear problems that greenwashing presents. A primary objection centres around the unethical practice of misleading the public. Without question, consumers increasingly view their purchasing choices as their ability to either validate or protest against the environmental position of a given brand or product. The willingness of certain brands to deliberately mislead consumers in this way as a shortcut to sales growth is of serious concern. Secondly, such activities could also discourage competitors from either adopting or continuing with a more authentic environmental approach. Greenwashing also poses a serious issue in masking the true picture of an industry’s current level of sustainability. In this sense, market transparency has never been more vital. Greenwashing can also trivialise the importance of genuine sustainability efforts. Consumers may become increasingly aware of brands seeping into greenwashing exercises, and if that commercial activity remains unchallenged, it will set an increasingly lower benchmark for environmental authenticity.
What do we really mean by ‘greenwashing’?
While these are all valid concerns, there are also key questions to ask about widespread the issue is, and even if fighting greenwashing head-on is the best approach. First, we have to ask what we truly mean by ‘greenwashing’. Making totally false claims regarding adopting environmental business practices is clearly a problem. However, in some cases, people may label a business as guilty of greenwashing if only a few of its policies and process are deemed environmentally-friendly – clearly a far less deceptive scenario. This also bring into focus the question ‘does a pure model of adequate sustainability actually exist?’ Underneath umbrella-terms such as ‘environmental’, ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainable’ there are a range of various sustainability considerations such as accurately assessing carbon footprints, identifying the ease and likelihood of certain materials being recycled, considering both carbon-offsetting and emission reductions as part of carbon neutrality commitments etc. The debates around the ideal approach for such issues are far from being open-and-shut, with different conclusions often reached for each scenario and unique variables and defining characterises are taken into account.
A growing legal framework
In brazen cases of organisations misleading consumers, we can also already take reassurance in the stricter legal measures coming into effect. For example, in September 2021, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the ‘Green Claims Code’ as part of a warning to businesses to ensure their environmental claims are legally compliant. The CMA also stated its intention to conduct a review of “misleading green claims” in early 2022.
Is the term ‘greenwashing’ actually helpful?
There could also be an argument to be made that the term ‘greenwashing’ is actually unhelpful from a sustainability standpoint? It’s certainly possible that businesses could be put-off from taking their first steps to enhanced sustainability for fear of not being able to go far enough, quickly enough and consequentially being labelled as inauthentic. Does such an accusation pose an even greater PR risk to some firms than remaining ‘under the radar’ and avoiding joining the wider sustainability movement altogether. (Of course, it could be counter-argued that businesses have perhaps ran out of time to be ‘under the radar’ in this sense with the only options remaining being ‘half-in’ or ‘all-in’ with regard to their environmental credentials [but this may be more true of certain industries and consumer demographics over others]). As a similar point, the fear of attracting the ‘greenwashing’ label could also discourage brands from pro-actively pursuing the PR benefits of increased sustainability measures. Many businesses will need to see how investing in enhanced sustainability will positively impact their bottom-line and PR activity will inevitably be required to achieve that. Consumers and competitors may feel frustration in a business disproportionately over-stretching its PR activities in relation to it’s true sustainability investment level. However, it could be argued that the more we allow business to gather PR benefits from their efforts, the more it will encourage them to take further, additional steps in the right direction over the long-term.
What do you think? Is greenwashing killing the progress of true business sustainability or are their bigger battles to fight in the move towards offer greater environmental protection? Let us know on Linkedin.
Author: Chris Fiander