Little green lies: corporations wash over sustainability movements through greenwashing

Charlotte Fishburne

Browsing the supermarket, consumers are blinded by sustainability buzzwords from products claiming to be “carbon neutral,” “eco-friendly” and “biodegradable.” These labels are quick to overwhelm, as it turns what should be a simple shopping choice into an ethical dilemma of how far customers should go to do their part for the planet. It appears to be a consumer’s responsibility to fix climate change and the world’s overconsumption through the products they buy.

Major corporations are contributors to guilting buyers by using sustainability as a marketing ploy to make more profits and gain more customers, otherwise known as corporate greenwashing. Corporate greenwashing is an obstacle to the environmentalist movement because it leads to a lack of trust between consumers and companies, whilst having trivial positive impacts on the environment. 

Greenwashing refers to when a company uses green advertising to distract consumers into thinking they are more environmentally friendly than they are. According to Greenpeace, a London organization educating the public about the climate, tactics of greenwashing include token gestures, green buzzwords or images, making broad claims without evidence and weak attempts at carbon offsetting. Any greenwashed product is often thoughtfully curated by a marketing expert, who understands how to draw in customers. 

Younger generations are even more vulnerable to greenwashing, as there is an immense amount of pressure on them to fix the problems they’ve inherited, including climate change and  pollution. According to a report by First Insight, a company that analyzes customer experience and data trends, “73 percent of Generation Z consumers surveyed were willing to pay more for sustainable products, more than every other generation.”

Many companies have been called out by the public for greenwashing, for instance Windex in 2019. In order to make more sales, Windex advertised a specific bottle they were selling as being made of “100% ocean plastic.” While this may seem like Windex helped clean up the ocean, the plastic was actually sourced on land. After the accusation, they changed their ads to promote using “ocean-bound plastic.” While Windex’s initial claim was somewhat logical, the deceitful nature of the campaign left many customers feeling cheated. 

In order to study the accuracy of sustainability marketing, the European Commission analyzed green online claims from businesses in fashion, cosmetics and household equipment industries. They found that “in 42 percent of cases, the claims were exaggerated, false or deceptive and could potentially qualify as unfair commercial practices under [European Union] rules.” Many of these claims made it impossible for customers to follow up on authenticity through a lack of information. 

While many companies participate in this dishonesty, other companies have been rightfully transparent about their efforts, including Patagonia. Owner Yvon Chouinard’s recent donation of the $3 billion company to climate change efforts models the exact kind of work companies need to do in order to maintain a truthful relationship with their customers. 

Another company, August, which creates fully biodegradable cotton tampons and pads, uses the same vocabulary as other brands but goes further by including detailed processes of how their products are scientifically produced and shipped. As stated on their website, “we are committed to being fully transparent when it comes to the manufacturing, distribution and sustainability of our products because greenwashing is NOT it.” With companies being open about what goes on behind the scenes, relationships with customers can be improved. 

On the other hand, these marketing tactics of big corporations are unethical and are a result of society’s desire to have a clean conscience about the environment. Buying products that seem more eco-friendly can make consumers feel better about themselves. The majority of climate issues stem from big corporations; contrastingly, there isn’t a lot for normal people to do besides living a life they feel is “green” enough, which is why many people resort to buying “sustainable” products.

There is nothing wrong with a desire to be environmentally conscious, but it becomes problematic when this feeling turns into an obligation to buy more. In the end, the best step to take is simply accepting that the products we buy don’t always make a difference. We can support organizations like Patagonia and August that have taken initiative to reinforce truly sustainable practices. Ultimately, the greatest changes come from the industry and not the consumers themselves. A lasting solution will involve stronger regulation, not only to curb greenwashing, but to force more sustainable practices in the first place.