The sustainability boom that more and more companies are jumping on also brings with it the risk of fraud. This is mainly about deceiving consumers with “green half-truths” and claims that cannot be verified in any way. Experts agree that greenwashing is not as rampant as it used to be, but it is harder to detect.
The topic of greenwashing is still relevant, although it is changing significantly. Ten years ago, some companies dared to exaggerate their ecological efforts and environmental activities. Still, today, given the much more informed customers and the power of social networks, they are much more cautious.
We no longer see so much exaggeration of a company’s activities or misinterpreted figures, but a new way has emerged. Companies are pledging to be green in the future, promising, for example, to increase the percentage of use of bio-cotton, recycled raw materials, or renewable energy. Some companies make commitments up to ten years in advance. Still, the customer has no real way of checking whether there is a real effort behind the declaration and a clear plan to achieve the goal, or whether it is just a promise for many years, which today there is nothing to prove.
The environmentalist Jay Westerveld pointed out the scourge of greenwashing as early as 1986 when he pointed out that some hotels had started encouraging guests to use a towel more than once to save water for washing and thus save the environment. But it later turned out that the printing of the cards that guests received had an even worse impact on the environment than the washing, and the hotels were mainly concerned with saving their own money. And that’s exactly greenwashing when a company invests more time and money in making it clear that it is environmentally friendly than it invests in mitigating its environmental impact.
Greenwashing has several characteristics by which it can be recognized. One of them is non-existent evidence. For example, sanitary napkins have information on the packaging that they contain a certain percentage of recycled content, but no evidence is given. Typically, they use ‘all-natural, ‘non-toxic,’ or ‘eco-friendly’ without further explanation. Oil and coal companies, for whom pollution is an integral part of business, also highlight their green initiatives instead.
Another example is the very typical topic is carbon neutrality. Adds that companies are helping themselves reduce their carbon footprint by so-called offsetting, i.e., investing in projects that aim to store carbon from the atmosphere. Often this involves planting trees. However, companies are inaccurate in informing customers about the potential of a given offset.
Companies should also avoid unconscious greenwashing because “greening the ungreen” can backfire. Indeed, information spreads much faster today than in the wooden days of “hotel” greenwashing. “Thanks to the speed and scale of social networks, in particular, any hypocrisy can boomerang back on them, especially in the form of lost customers, reputational damage, or legal settlement costs if someone finds out that what you are claiming is not quite true,” And as an example, she cites the largest US retail chain Walmart, which was forced to pay $1 million in a 2017 settlement for selling supposedly environmentally-friendly plastics, which turned out to be a misleading claim.
Green brainwashing is a real threat to sustainability efforts themselves. It undermines consumer confidence, which hinders companies in making their business more environmentally friendly. Greenwashing threatens sustainability mainly by reducing trust in green solutions, wasting private and public money, and groping in blind alleys at a time when climate change needs to be addressed quickly, effectively, and comprehensively.