Greenwashing – what does it actually mean?

by | 23 Feb 2022

“What is Greenwashing?”

It really makes my blood boil when we make a conscious decision to try to do the right thing and buy the right thing and make the greener and more environmentally friendly choice which we can then feel proud of ourselves for, only to discover we’ve been duped by a clever bit of greenwashing, and in fact we have probably done the wrong thing or bought the wrong thing or made a choice that isn’t really very green at all.

We’ve probably all seen or heard the term ‘greenwashing’ by now as it’s been popping up all over the place for the last few years, but many of us may not really understand what it means, how it impacts us on a daily basis, and how we can spot it.

In basic terms greenwashing is where companies or groups or influencers use advertising and public messaging to try to ‘appear’ to be environmentally friendly, sustainable and green, in many cases trying to appear ‘greener’ than they actually are.

It’s also a technique used by some companies to distract its investors, consumers and customers from the fact that their business model, products and activities actually do a lot of environmental harm and damage, think oil companies here…

As the pressure grows on all of us to start thinking about our own environmental impact and the changes we can make for the better, our interest around environmentally and socially conscious products and decisions increases and we become much more concerned about making environmentally friendly purchasing decisions in our lives.

As a direct result of this some companies, groups, and influencers have a real financial incentive to appear sustainable and socially conscious so develop and push their greenwashing agenda making it much harder for us to navigate our way through all the bullshit and really be able to identify the right product or company to choose.

Greenwashing isn’t new, the oil and gas sector has been running a very sophisticated and well documented campaign to slow down and prevent climate action for the last 30 years. Other industries are now catching up and catching on to what greenwashing can do for them and are using more ‘green’ advertising to sell products and services where the claims they make (or ‘appear’ to make) don’t match up with reality.

Attracting consumers with an environmental and social conscience has become a key focus for many companies and brands in order for them to cash in on the ‘green market’ and there are a lot of surprisingly simple ways in which they can  engage in greenwashing. Packaging design is a great example of this. Research has shown that a company can simply package a product in ‘green’ and more ‘natural looking’ packaging, include some ‘eco’ labels or ‘sustainable’ labels without any real meaning behind them, and include some meaningless ‘green symbols’ and many consumers will be more likely to buy the product thinking it is a more environmentally friendly option.

In a lot of these instances the company will even charge more for the ‘green’ product! Yes you did read that correctly, they can charge more money for something that has just been ‘packaged as green’.

There are guidelines around this type of thing but so often they aren’t adhered to as they aren’t properly regulated and it falls to us as consumers to try to make ‘informed’ purchasing decisions looking carefully at the brands and products we are buying and the ‘green’ claims they are making.

A great recent example of greenwashing from a large company is Ryanair where some of their advertising was banned after they claimed to be offering ‘low CO2 flights’ (which isn’t actually possible) and called themselves ‘Europe’s lowest emission airline’ and a ‘low CO2 emissions airline’.

As a consumer you’d naturally assume these claims to be true as Ryanair publicly made them, but all of them were found to be ‘misleading’ and they ‘couldn’t be substantiated’ so were banned by ASA.

As a consumer it is so easy to be mislead by these types of claims as we forget companies are only really interested in selling us something and we naturally expect companies to tell us the truth.

We need properly regulated advertising and strong enforcement of the laws to shine a light on those companies, groups and influencers cashing in on the green market through greenwashing, but until then it really is down to us as consumers to educate and inform ourselves, pay more attention to what we are buying, ask more questions and ultimately vote with our wallets.

If you need help cutting through all the greenwashing and making the right green choices to reduce the environmental impact of your business please get in touch as Achieving Greenness can help.

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