If you’re looking for brands that do good, whether that’s social impact, environmentalism or sustainability; chances are you’ve encountered CSR, many, many times. CSR (corporate social responsibility) is popping up all over the place in webpages and mission statements as social responsibility has grown from ‘nice to have’ to credibility prerequisite. Unfortunately, this often morphs into “greenwashing” – creating a false impression of virtue achieved by misleading stakeholders about the true ethicality of a company’s practises and products.
WHAT IS “GREENWASHING”?
Let’s contextualise. When fast-fashion labels launch “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” collections with no explanation as to why it’s sustainable – that’s greenwashing. It’s performative responsibility that does nothing to change the fundamental logic underpinning the business model. In the example of fast fashion, a supposed sustainable collection is still the production of a lot of ‘stuff’ in breakneck cycles; at the expense of people and the planet.
And it’s not that difficult for businesses to successfully portray themselves as environmental and social stewards, because in general, we have very limited information about what it means for companies to operate and for the public to consume, sustainably. It’s incredibly complex. And because sustainability, ethics and environmentalism are complex issues, it’s easy for big businesses with big PR budgets to mislead. This creates a perfect storm in which greenwash achieves far-reaching impact.
THE CHARACTERISTICS & EFFECTS OF GREENWASHING.
- Greenwashing is all about fabricating a deceptive image – it’s inherently misleading. Duping customers into believing that a business intends to do good, while the real intention is cashing in on the ‘green pound’.
- The overuse and/or misuse of ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ claims are saturating the market to the extent that ‘greenness’ will soon lose all meaning.
- Greenwashing tactics undermine the efforts of those pursuing a genuine, transparent and ethical environmental agenda.
HOW TO IDENTIFY GREENWASHING.
It happens. So how can we separate the good from the greenwash? We’ve identified a few red flags:
- A positive claim that provides no factual evidence of its positive impact. H&M’s conscious collection states that all conscious garments contain at least 50% sustainable materials. BUT, what is the benchmark for sustainability? How do we know that 50% is sufficient enough to deem a product ‘sustainable’?
- An inherently unsustainable or unethical company/ industry promoting a sustainable or ethical product. E.g. BP’s public pledge to ‘make energy cleaner’, all while 96% of their capital expenditure is on oil and gas. Something fishy?
- Lack of transparency: only sharing details of initiatives that have ended in good results: Environmental transparency means honesty – its the good, the bad and the ugly. Companies must be truthful and objective, portraying not just the positive messages but the downfalls and the ‘could do betters’.
- Superficial language; claims lacking in specificity or substance that mislead or befuddle with no real meaning. Like “all-natural”. The claim is used by many industries such as skincare and cleaning to reassure customers of the purity and gentleness of a product; but, ironically many naturally occurring substances are poisonous. The phrase ‘all-natural’ is used for the positive connotation, rather than as any real benchmark for greenness.
IMMERSE YOURSELF IN AN ERA OF CHANGE
Use your powers to buy from, and work for businesses that are doing better. Choose socially conscious, sustainable and progressive brands operating with purpose, not just profit, over tokenistic gestures. By choosing those with genuine ethical and environmental agendas, over those who pay lip service, greenwashers will either have to stop talking the talk or (ideally) start walking the walk.
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Photo credit Brian Yurasits