YHD Blogs – Greenwashing

This article is part of our “Youth Head Delegate Blog Series” — written by our YHDs! 

by Lauren T.

In the mid-1980s, oil company Chevron created a series of fancy TV and print ads to convince the public of its environmental authenticity.  The campaign was titled People Do. It showed employees protecting bears, butterflies and sea turtles, implying that cute animals and nature meant eco-friendliness.  It was so effective that it won an Effie advertising award in 1990.  It became the “gold standard” of greenwashing and a case study at Harvard Business school.  

Coca-Cola is another excellent example of a business that needs to demonstrate sustainability while advertising products.  In 2009, they launched an advertisement campaign centred on consumers recycling their Coke bottles after consumption.  It made people feel good about drinking their product; it was a great way to appease concerns about the sustainability of plastic bottles and cans.  Even now, they advertise their sustainable business with scenes of nature, colourful images and the claim to use less plastic.  Many of their descriptions hold vague or meaningless goals meant to sound impressive.  In reality, it is just a ruse to bury the truth of their unethical practices. This campaign is a case of “greenwashing,” a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986.

Greenwashing is falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offering or operations.  One group investigating and taking action against this is Greenpeace. “Corporations are falling all over themselves,” the group reported, “to demonstrate that they are environmentally conscious. The average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives.”  The most common greenwashing strategy, when a company touts an environmental product while its core business is inherently polluting or unsustainable.  Corporations pump out campaigns so that the consumer disregards the malpractice and instead focuses on its “voluntary action” to do better.

As consumers become more environmentally aware, corporations spend billions to convince them of a “green” or “eco-friendly” product.  Earth Day has become an advertisement opportunity for these greenwashers.  Activities like excessive logging and clear-cutting of ancient forests are covered with greenwashing used by governments and companies responsible.  Even solutions that are practically green and viable may be bathed in green light. Wind power is a clean and renewable resource and allows us to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels. On inappropriately placed wind farms, there are massive bird and bat deaths due to the completely unsuitable environments they run on.  When site locations are not carefully selected, greenwashing is used to cover questionable actions. Another example is solar power.  By itself, the sun creates renewable energy.  However, power plants are often built in fragile desert environments.  The energy may be renewable, but the desert ecosystem is not; this is again shrouded with greenwashing.  Installations themselves would destroy thousands of acres of desert vegetation that sustain native wildlife.

Educating yourself is one of the best ways to avoid greenwashing.  Look for labels that a third party has approved.  Just because it says “all-natural” or “made with organic ingredients”, does not mean that it’s true.  If you’re unsure, check a company’s website for misleading words, vague umbrella statements and graphics that make the product seem “natural”.  In a world we were can be so easily deceived, always take the time to see who is genuinely green.