Illustrated by: Melody Wong

False Sustainability: The Detrimental Effects of Corporate Greenwashing

As consumer demand for eco-friendly and sustainable products continues to climb, companies of all stripes are embarking on the murky waters of social and environmental responsibility. Green marketing is no longer a tactic reserved for the crunchy section of your local grocery store or the small, ethical fashion brand popping up in your Instagram feed. And while that sounds like great news, is it good that “green” is going mainstream? 

Skincare junkie that I am, I love seeing more products labeled “natural” or “clean.” But as that product category continues to grow, so does my skepticism. Arsenic is natural, as is formaldehyde, but I don’t want either near my face. As for “clean,” unless a brand specifies its standards for clean products, the term is meaningless. Claims that a product is free of toxins or better for the environment are seldom regulated, leaving room for misleading marketing. 

Whether intentional or not, brands that use green marketing to make a profit rather than making a difference are guilty of greenwashing.

The problem is, green marketing works — the Harvard Business Review found that sustainably-marketed products grew faster than their counterparts in 90 percent of consumer categories. 

If companies get away with doing less and saying more, there is no incentive to make real change.

Corporate Greenwashing – Sustainable Businesses = Climate Extinction

Capitalizing on the eco-conscious emotions of today’s consumers, greenwashing is a deceptive marketing ploy that slaps around “green” terms — like eco-friendly, biodegradable and all natural — to paint this false idea that a business is doing more to preserve the flora and fauna of Mother Earth than it really is. 

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

Most greenwashing is advertising or copy that makes vague environmental claims in one area while ignoring the rest of the product’s impact and supply chain. Think fast fashion brands like H&M that promote “sustainable” lines because some items contain recycled content. These companies end up spending more time marketing themselves as green than supporting sustainable business practices. 

Greenwashing runs the gamut from a lack of understanding about sustainability to outright false claims and misinformation. On one end, you have companies using recycled plastic bottles to make “sustainable swimwear.” While reusing materials is preferable to virgin nylon or polyester, these suits still shed microplastics in the wash and are still likely to end up in a landfill. 

Isn’t it a good thing that these businesses are doing something, no matter how small? Yes — and no. 

While most companies aren’t intentionally deceptive about their practices, they make it harder for environmentally responsible businesses to remain profitable. When H&M sells a “sustainable” cardigan for $34.99, it competes with Sheep, Inc., which offers a regenerative, carbon-negative, merino cardigan that you can track from sheep to shipping for $237. If these two sweaters are environmentally equivalent, why would anyone shell out for the latter?

As anyone but H&M will tell you, they aren’t equivalent. Not even close. Using organic cotton doesn’t excuse the socially and environmentally damaging practices H&M is known for. That sweater is still likely made from cotton that takes up valuable food-growing land and processed with toxins in a pollutive factory where workers make a few dollars a day. On the contrary, companies like Sheep, Inc. build sustainability into their identity from the start, considering all steps of the process — from the sheep they shear to the packaging and shipping practices.

On the more unethical side of things, you have what corporate accountability consultant Kenny Bruno calls “deep greenwash” in his book “Greenwash: The Reality of Corporate Environmentalism.” Deep greenwash is “the campaign to assuage the concerns of the public, deflect blame away from polluting corporations, and promote voluntary measures over bona fide regulation.” 

It’s intentional misdirection — a magic trick that says “look over here” to hide a literal trash heap of environmental sins.

In 2018, for example, drink magnate Coca-Cola launched its “World Without Waste” initiative to use 100 percent recyclable plastic and 50 percent recycled material by 2030. Though most plastic is recyclable, only nine percent of all plastic ever made has been recycled. Plastic can’t be recycled indefinitely, either — it degrades with every process. Coke’s initiative will actually increase the company’s reliance on plastic products. 

Last year, Break Free From Plastic named Coca-Cola the number one corporate plastic polluter worldwide for three years running. World Without Waste is a publicity stunt that distracts from this issue rather than addressing it. 

The truth is, no company that relies on single-use containers is sustainable.

Greenwashing hurts businesses making legitimate strides toward sustainability. These false claims take up consumer attention and market share, directing buyers away from better choices. Eco-conscious companies tend to be smaller, from-the-ground-up organizations with slimmer margins and less weight to throw around than their competitors. 

Greenwashing also drives consumer skepticism about green business in general. Claudette Juska, a research specialist for Greenpeace, thinks “people have become skeptical of any environmental claims. They don’t know what’s valid and what isn’t, so they disregard most of them.” 

If support for green products dries up, earth-conscious companies will cease to exist.

Telling the Green From the Greenwash

Illustrated by: Melody Wong

So, with all that ecobabble, how do we tell an environmentally conscious product from a cleverly marketed one? In one word: transparency. 

It might be impossible for any consumer product to be truly sustainable, but conscientious brands will explain what they’re doing and where they fall short. Some have their materials and practices verified by third-party organizations like bluesign® or Green Seal. Brands like Patagonia map their supply chain and encourage shoppers to repair existing garments and avoid needless shopping.

The good news is, we, as consumers, can influence companies to make real change by purchasing with intention and calling out unsubstantiated claims.

Of course, the most sustainable habit to cultivate is making do with less. But when you do shop, remember that your dollar matters — and collectively, there is monumentous power in the small conscious efforts that are made on an individual basis. It’s a vote of confidence for the brands you buy and the causes they support. Let’s make it count.

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