By Haoxuan Gao, AforS intern from Macalester College
Have you ever struggled with product claims from companies that you know aren’t true? Welcome to the world of greenwashing. McDonald’s introduced paper straws in 2019 but they turned out to be non-recyclable. A study shows that 60% of the sustainability claims that major high-fashion brands hold are misleading. H&M, a fast fashion company, has a shocking rate of 96% untruthful sustainability claims. However, there are many more companies making misleading claims.
Socially and environmentally “just” campaigns can be categorized as corporate social responsibility, CSR for short. It is put in place under the idea that corporations need to be socially responsible, not only changing their internal structure but also doing good deeds for society. It includes making donations, reducing energy consumption, practicing ethical sourcing, and engaging in the campaigns mentioned above. It aims to build a framework where sustainable business behaviors and capitalism coexist.
You may wonder- isn’t it perfect? Companies can make money while benefiting the environment, creating a win-win situation. It may be true in a perfect world, but in reality, it does not work as well as people hope. Many corporations engage in the scene of “greenwashing,” shown in the examples above, which deflects the peaceful image of CSR and further causes harm to the planet and its inhabitants.
According to Toby Miller, the author of Greenwashing Culture, we need to decompose the vocabulary into “green” and “washing.” “Green” represents the images of serene, undisturbed, and nature-like. In order to appeal to their clients, companies want to be as close to the definition of “green” as possible. They do so by claiming that their products are sustainable and ethically made. This strategy appeals to people’s desire to consume green products under the climate urgency.
However, the caveat is, those companies are not as green as they claim to be. This is when “washing” comes into place, which means that corporations try to wash away and cover any dirt they have to match their image out front.
Sociologist Erving Goffman suggests that greenwashing emerges when the company possesses what he calls a “dark secret,” or something that violates the company’s image to the outside world. Greenwashing is essentially a “skillful information control” so the audience perceives no ‘slips’ or ‘tells’.”
Therefore, the definition of greenwashing is: a public relation (PR) strategy by corporations to portray themselves as more environmentally friendly than they actually is, through methods such as,
- Selective disclosure of their carbon footprint
- Exaggerate sustainability claims made about their products
Besides greenwashing, there are also other CSR strategies that do not uphold the truth. Campaigns of other “color washing” include pinkwashing, (claiming they donate for breasts cancer); rainbow washing (using LGBTQ on their front page trying to attract their customers and look more “inclusive” while taking down their support column after pride month); blue washing (claiming that they support United Nations initiatives.)
All the “washing” techniques can be very effective as they make consumers feel like they are supporting good causes. For example, greenwashing leads people to believe that they contribute to saving the Earth. People may buy products from rainbow washing companies because they feel their identities are “seen” and “supported.”
One example of greenwashing comes from Home Depot. In 2007, they rebranded 60,000 of their existing products as “green”. The justification is ridiculous: paintbrushes made from plastic are sustainable because they don’t use any trees; paintbrushes made from wood are also sustainable because they don’t use any plastics. This strategy appeals to different audiences because treehuggers would have more incentives to purchase plastic brushes. Those who have strong opinions about non-compatible materials would naturally select wooden brushes. However, both sides fall into the trap of greenwashing.
McDonald’s introduced paper straws in 2019 but they turned out to be non-recyclable. Study shows that 60% of the sustainability claims that major high-fashion brands hold are misleading. H&M, a fast fashion company, has a shocking rate of 96% untruthful sustainability claims. “The fast fashion industry is notorious for its environmental impact, so a level of greenwashing is to be expected there,” said author Victoria Peel-Yates.
So, where do these greenwashing behaviors lead to? According to researcher Ellis Jones, these so-called techniques shift consumers’ gaze away from the products themselves “and toward a narrative that allows consumers to overestimate their ability to generate environmental change.” According to his explanation, a bag of coffee beans might be sustainable in packaging, but what about manufacturing and sourcing? How can we know that the other processes of coffee making are ethical?
What’s more, these corporate washing strategies that present seemingly progressive ideologies might be entirely useless. The book Empowered discusses how campaigns invoking feminism are inherently futile. It argues that though it’s good to make movements like body positivity more visible, the conversation stops there. Instead, those campaigns use women’s craving for liberation to brand their products, creating a “feel-good” illusion to consumers without challenging the existing system. “as if seeing or purchasing feminism is the same thing as changing patriarchal structures.” The author Sarah Banet-Weiser says. Indeed, instead of directly challenging the system that oppresses women, body positivity campaigns are doing something similar to greenwashing: they both perpetuate capitalism, an undeniable force behind poverty, sexism, and climate change.
Greenwashing not only focuses on consumers, but it also impacts the activists who try to stop this hypocrisy. Research shows that corporations monitor and analyze activist behaviors. British Petroleum, an oil and gas company notorious for its oil spill, possess files of activists who protest against them. BP monitors activist groups on Facebook, analyzes their criticisms, and modifies their PR strategies accordingly. This suggests that BP can conceal information that hurts their business while still conducting unsustainable practices privately. It also shows that activists and activism against big corporations are vulnerable to surveillance.
Though many corporations like BP and Walmart believe that greenwashing can benefit their businesses, research shows it can backfire. According to Nyilasy el., when consumers discover corporate hypocrisy (greenwashing, rainbow washing, etc.), it triggers their negative emotions, which translates to a negative attitude towards that corporation. This will reduce or eliminate consumers’ consumption and might result in negative comments, complaints, and even boycotts, which decrease brand perception.
Throughout the article, I discussed the general definition of greenwashing, a PR strategy for corporations to exaggerate their actions and ability to be sustainable. I broadened this definition and talked about how the campaigns can also focus on LGBTQ rights, etc. Then, I used several examples from Walmart, Home Depot, and body positivity campaigns to cover how exactly companies are conducting greenwashing. Later on, I explained the reasoning behind such a strategy: to shift consumers’ gaze away from unsustainable behaviors. I then stated greenwashing’s impacts on activists who try to stop this behavior and the companies themselves, showing the negative effects of such an action.
Some of you might ask, isn’t advertising greenwashing? Since it exaggerates the claims made by companies. However, I believe that it all depends on the degree of harm. If the consequences of those advertisements are greatly negative to people and the environment, it should be called out. Similarly, companies are inherently not perfect and they make mistakes too, like humans. However, greenwashing exists in the gap between whether they deliberately conceal the imperfection using PR or whether they acknowledge it.
So what can we do to stop greenwashing? Professor Jo Litter suggests that the only way is through regulations: ethical standards that are enforced nationally and internationally. In this way, even if the companies stay at the bare minimum, at least they wouldn’t cross the ethics line and harm people and the planet. Though enforcing regulations seems to be a grand task taken by the collective, individuals can contribute to this cause, too: through voting, writing to local politicians, starting, donating to, and joining organizations that push for policy changes. Though the route to totally eliminate greenwashing seems far away under the capitalist system, a small contribution is better than no contribution. Hopefully, one day, we can live in a society where greenwashing ceases to exist.
Banet-Weiser, S. 2018. Empowered: Popular feminism and popular misogyny. Duke University Press.
Jones, E. 2019. Rethinking Greenwashing: Corporate Discourse, Unethical Practice, and the Unmet Potential of Ethical Consumerism. Sociological Perspectives, 62(5), 728–754. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121419849095
Miller, T. 2017. Greenwashing culture. Routledge as part of Taylor and Francis.
Nyilasy, G., Gangadharbatla, H., & Paladino, A. 2012. GREENWASHING: A CONSUMER PERSPECTIVE. Economics & Sociology, 5(2), 116-123,153-154. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/greenwashing-consumer-perspective/docview/1268704693/se-2
Lewis, T., & Potter, E. 2011. Ethical consumption: A critical introduction. Routledge.
Uldam, J. 2017. Social media visibility: Challenges to activism. Media, Culture & Society, 40(1), 41–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443717704997