Can you help save the planet? Greenwashing in a climate crisis

Can you help save the planet? Greenwashing in a climate crisis

By: francesca scott&
June 16 2023

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Can you help save the planet? Greenwashing in a climate crisis

Image source: Reuters

With fossil fuels being "by far the largest contributor to global climate change, accounting for over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions," it's clear where the blame lies for the ongoing climate crisis. Climate change is now broadly accepted as scientific fact, and disinformation narratives have adapted to the current discourse. These narratives are more nuanced, harder to identify, and discourage progress toward reducing emissions. 

Greenwashing is a prevalent, pervasive type of climate change disinformation that almost every consumer interacts with and has found roots in the sustainable marketing industry. Sustainable marketing targets eco-conscious customers by drawing attention to environmental and social concerns to sell products and has become a hugely profitable industry in recent years. The Sustainable Market Share Index (SMSI) states that between 2015 to 2021, sustainably marketed product growth increased 2.7 times faster than conventionally marketed products. The SMSI also notes that though sustainably marketed products only accounted for 17.1 percent of market share value, they accounted for one-third of market growth value.

The subtle genius of greenwashing shifts the responsibility of climate change from the fossil fuel industry onto the consumer, creating the impression that an individual's purchasing power can impact carbon dioxide emissions. This makes a smoke screen for brands allowing them to continue harmful environmental practices. In The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit reaffirms how oil giant B.P.'s marketing first coined the term "carbon footprint," thus introducing a sea change in sustainability culture. Many consumers nowadays make purchasing decisions believing they support green initiatives and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, perhaps consulting "carbon calculators" to aid in climate-friendly purchasing decisions. But many of these products are often more expensive and not necessarily as sustainable as they appear. 

Whether individual actions can positively impact the planet is a nuanced question. Dr. Waqa Ejaz, Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, told Logically Facts, "I think individual consumer purchasing power does not have much impact on climate change. However, consumer decisions do. When we look at those individual decisions at an aggregate level, we see their importance. For example, if consumers choose to buy things made by eco-friendly companies, it indicates higher involvement on the individual level. However, at the same time, those individuals are not made aware of whether such companies are classified as "eco-friendly," which in turn points towards greenwashing."

Greenwashing is rampant. In 2021, the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority conducted a global review of 500 websites relating to misleading environmental claims. They found that as many as four in 10 "appeared to be using tactics that could be considered misleading and potentially break consumer law." Greenwashing can be seen across almost every consumer goods industry, from dishcloths to designer fashion. The result is always the same - deceiving consumers and harming the planet.  

Food for thought

Transitioning to a plant-based diet is considered one of the most effective ways to impact climate change positively. Because meat and dairy farming contributes so heavily to carbon dioxide emissions, environmentalists have long encouraged individuals to boycott the industry. Land use, processing animal feed, methane produced by livestock waste, slaughtering and butchering, transportation, and meat packaging are the key aspects that create such high emissions, according to Generation Vegan. A report by The Independent claims that a plant-based diet can reduce an individual's carbon footprint by as much as 73 percent. If everyone shifted to a plant-based diet, global farmland would be reduced by 75 percent, "an area equivalent to the size of the U.S., China, Australia, and the EU combined." 

Even the most sustainable meat will still have more of a negative impact on the planet than non-meat products, but some vegan products, while appearing to be sustainable, may have a different story altogether. Alternative agricultural conditions are necessary for farming that would replace livestock, and different foods can require masses of land, water, and heat to grow, not to mention the transportation of goods worldwide. Both Innocent Smoothies and oat milk brand Oatly have been forced to address greenwashing in their advertisements, and they are far from alone. Vegan marketed products like soy, corn, some nuts, avocados, and other fruits require intensive farming practices that many aren't aware of. Palm oil farming is known to be one of the biggest destroyers of rainforests and wildlife, not to mention that "biodiesel from palm oil is three times worse for the climate than regular diesel when indirect emissions from changes in the use of land are accounted for." The average consumer is unlikely to know that some fertilizers used to grow natural produce can contain "blood meal, fish meal, feather meal and bone meal," according to Modern Famer.

Travel light

The aviation industry accounts for "around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions." It has a long reputation for greenwashing, like "carbon offset programs" where consumers can "compensate for the CO2 associated with their flight by funding carbon reduction projects elsewhere." Debate within the scientific community questions whether these programs cause more harm than good. There are, predictably, many examples of deceptive marketing campaigns by airlines that actively harm the environment, like when Ryanair was "forced to drop two schemes, a reforestation project in Ireland, and a whale and dolphin counting scheme. Both were found to be ineffective at reducing emissions." 

But when it comes to it, the average individual's carbon footprint is nothing compared to the minority of people who hold immense wealth. Lest we forget the damning investigation by Yard in 2022 that looked at private jet usage by some of the world's most affluent celebrities. The data revealed an average of 3376.64 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by July of that year alone, a staggering "482.37 times more than the average person's annual emissions."

The car industry is infamous for its greenwashing reputation. Take the 2009 Volkswagen emissions scandal that employed some of the most egregious tactics to sell "environmentally friendly" cars under the guise of reducing emissions with "clean diesel." The marketing campaign featured slogans like "Green Never Felt So Right" while claiming a massive reduction in exhaust emissions. The disinformation campaign went unchecked for six years until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency discovered that "Volkswagen had installed software allowing it to cheat emissions tests for 11 million of its vehicles. The automaker's so-called clean diesel cars produced nitrogen oxide emissions up to 40 times the legal limit," as Natural Resources Defense Council reported. 

In the bag

The fashion industry contributes "up to 10% of humanity's carbon emissions, dries up water sources, and pollutes rivers and streams," and thanks to standard synthetic fabrics like polyester, "approximately 60% of all materials used by the fashion industry are made from plastic" reports the Geneva Environment Network. Some of this plastic has been found to have links to Russian oil producers, putting fashion brands in an uncomfortable position in light of Russia's culpability for the deaths of hundreds of thousands since its invasion of Ukraine. 

Familiar high-street clothing companies have been caught peddling misinformation to sell fast fashion. H&M's ambiguously titled eco-label "conscious choice" has been removed from stores and is facing a class action lawsuit thanks to an investigation by Quartz that found high environmental scores advertised on its website. In reality, "more than half of the scorecards on H&M's website claimed that a piece of clothing was better for the environment when, in fact, it was no more sustainable than comparable garments made by the company and its competitors. In the most egregious cases, H&M showed data that were the opposite of reality." The company was forced to review its methodology, namely the Higg Index, a system criticized for seeming to favor clothes made from fossil fuels, like some "vegan leather" and polyester. It's also known to have strong ties to the fashion industry through its founding members, and its metrics don't follow the environmental impact of a garment's entire life cycle, among other concerns.

Looking to the future

As with all types of disinformation, becoming literate in greenwashing techniques can help environmentally conscious consumers avoid putting money in the wrong hands. As noted by EcoWatch, greenwashing comes in many forms. It can look like buzzwords and vague promises of "eco-friendly," "recyclable," and "non-toxic" ingredients in advertising. Similarly,  brands promising sustainability practices without providing evidence, companies selectively disclosing positive facts about their products without acknowledging the broader environmental impact of their production processes, and products featuring fake certificates claiming to verify environmental, vegan, or other sustainably concerned bodies that have no connection to any certified organization. The more people are made aware of these deceptive marketing practices, the easier it is to support legitimately sustainable brands and, thus, the health and future of the planet.

Dr. Ejaz confirms this: "One of the main issues with Greenwashing is that it clouds the danger climate change poses. We are at the stage where we need concrete and far-reaching policies, whereas flimsy and unaccountable practices like Greenwashing do more harm than good because companies can always mislead the public and auditors."

Some governments are starting to pay attention to climate change misinformation. Greenwashing will soon cost U.K. brands up to 10 percent of their global turnover thanks to the soon-to-be-enacted Digital Markets, Consumer, and Competition bill, with individuals liable to be fined if caught failing to meet regulatory requirements. The EU has similar plans. The Global Reporting Initiative and the International Financial Reporting Standards are also collaborating on a Memorandum of Understanding with the intent to "consolidate or align multiple international initiatives covering sustainability reporting into a more cohesive approach for the benefit of companies, investors and society at large," thus combining existing standards of sustainability reporting that companies will have to adhere to. While greenwashing is still a severe threat to the reduction of carbon dioxide, widespread legislation against such practices is an essential step in tackling this mercurial, toxic form of disinformation.

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before