A Guide to Greenwashing and How to Avoid It

eco-friendly bag with greenery in it - a guide to greenwashing and how to avoid it

A recent (November 2021) study in the journal Climatic Change suggests that the role of PR (public relations) firms in the politics of climate change is much bigger than we think.

Study authors Robert Brulle and Carter Werthman compiled data showing PR firm engagement by sectors such as oil and gas, utilities, steel and the environmental movement. They found that these firms have wielded an influence on climate change discourse comparable to “conservative think tanks or environmental groups.”

The nature of PR firms, of course, is to stay behind the scenes, so their role in shaping public discussions on climate change has been seriously understudied.

When the researchers analyzed what strategies PR firms tend to use on behalf of their clients, however, they found that the most common PR tactic used to influence the public is greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the marketing practice of claiming a product or corporation is good for the environment when it’s not. The term comes to us courtesy of American environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who coined it in 1986 in an essay that took Fiji’s Beachcomber Island Resort hotel to task for suggesting that guests could save the planet by reusing towels.

The problem, for Westerveld, was that the practice of reusing towels sounded helpful for the planet but was more effective at reducing costs for the hotel than it was at reducing water use.

We encounter greenwashing all the time. The most visible form it takes is misleading marketing (like Huggies “Pure & Natural” disposable diapers, which were discontinued in 2015, or that time when McDonald’s changed its logo from red to green in Europe).

Greenwashing is bigger than individual companies tricking us into thinking a product or practice is environmentally friendly, however. Greenwashing has shaped the way we understand environmental issues, the ways in which we respond to them and the role we think we play in solving them.

A Case in Point

In the early 2000s, British Petroleum (BP) enacted a particularly successful campaign with the PR firm Ogilvy & Mather, when it rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” The most successful piece of that campaign was its popularization of the term “carbon footprint,” and the release of its carbon footprint calculator in 2004.

The genius of this greenwashing campaign was to shift responsibility for BP’s carbon emissions from their shoulders onto ours.

According to data from the Climate Accountability Institute, BP is the 6th largest CO2 emitter in the world.

And as Scott Carpenter tells Forbes, BP would also go on to cause “one of the largest oil spills in Alaska’s history” in 2006, to unleash “the largest marine oil spill in history” in 2010, to sell off many of the solar and wind assets it had acquired and to “quietly” abandon its rebranding.

While BP saw its share of bad press for its oil spills, however, it effectively managed to turn the larger public discussion away from its culpability for the climate crisis. We know it was effective because broad-based calls for BP (and other oil and gas companies) to be held legally and financially accountable for the global damage they’ve wrought have been muted.

Instead, as a public, we’ve focused on micromanaging our lives to reduce carbon footprints that are microscopic in comparison to those of industry giants like BP.

How Greenwashing Shifts Responsibility

pile of plastic bottle caps on beach - a guide to greenwashing and how to avoid it

“Being able to effectively promulgate a particular narrative,” say Brulle and Werthman, “allows an organization to set the terms of the debate to favor their preferred outcomes.”

Industries and corporations have shifted responsibility for environmental damage onto consumers by crafting narratives that tell us that if we want a cleaner world, it’s up to us, as individuals. That is nonsense.

The Limits of the Power of Individual Choice

Any company can tell me to do my part to help save the planet by recycling the plastic packaging their product comes in. If my municipality can’t process it, however (and lots of municipalities can’t), then not only is that packaging thrown into the landfill anyway—it costs my municipality more resources to manage than if I had thrown it into the garbage in the first place.

I’m not saving the planet. I am, however, as a consumer who pays taxes, paying twice for plastic packaging I did not ask for, agree to or want. And municipalities are paying to manage the environmental problems the plastics industry creates.

If we are looking for ways to effectively fight plastic waste, the most sensible one is for companies to eliminate plastic packaging from their products. They alone have the power to make that choice. They’ve had that power all along.

Instead, as Heather Rogers of the Brooklyn Rail reminds us, the Society for Plastic Industries (SPI) itself lobbied governments to adopt the recycling symbol on plastic containers.

This was pitched as helping consumers decide whether a package is recyclable, but the move primarily benefitted the plastics industry, which was otherwise facing the possibility of “restrictions like bans, deposit laws, and mandatory recycling standards” as governments attempted to reduce the amount of disposable plastics ending up in landfills.

The insidiousness of this bit of greenwashing, like all greenwashing, is to make it appear as if industries and corporations are going above and beyond any time they do anything that sounds like it might help the planet, ignoring the fact that at best, they’re mitigating the environmental damage they themselves created.

How to Avoid Being Greenwashed

These tactics could help you determine whether a company is pulling the wool over your eyes:

  • Ignore any and all images. Images tell you how the company wants you to perceive the product. They do not tell you anything about the product.
  • Evaluate the type of product itself. If it’s a disposable plastic bag, it isn’t super for the environment, regardless of the claims its producer makes.
  • Be wary of vague terms like “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “pure,” “botanical,” “all-natural” and the like. These words tell you nothing about the product.
  • Look for data and specific figures instead of broad claims.
  • Read the label for details. There’s a big difference between something being “recyclable” and something made of 100% post-consumer recycled material.
  • Watch out for comparative claims. “Better” for the environment doesn’t mean anything.
  • Research the company. Find out about their manufacturing processes and their other products. Be very skeptical if a company isn’t transparent about what it’s doing to mitigate its environmental impact.
  • Don’t be fooled by rebranding. Often a company will change its logo and packaging without changing its practices or products.
  • Look up third-party certifications listed on the label. Many a company will indirectly sponsor the third-party certification bodies that certify their products.

Shifting Responsibility Back

In most countries whose economies are based on the production of consumer goods, we’re taught that buying products and services is the way to solve our problems and live a good life.

We cannot buy our way out of our current environmental crises, however.

Instead of focusing on making the “right” consumer choices, we would do better to collectively use our time and energy to put pressure onto corporations and governments to give us better choices in the first place. And to be responsible when their choices result in damage to our planet.

Feature image: Priscilla du Preez; Image 1: Mike Harpur

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