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A Short History of Greenwashing


Greenwashing - when an organisation markets themselves as environmentally friendly, but doesn't follow through with actually minimising their environmental impact. We all love to hate greenwashing... and there have been countless scandals over the past years - plenty that make you wonder ‘how did they think they were going to get away with that?!’


In this article, we take a look at where the term came from, some of the most famous greenwashing scandals, and how to spot greenwashing in the real world!


With demand booming for sustainable products, some businesses are looking for shortcuts to attract a new army of shoppers. Those who greenwash intend to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands. Often, deliberately using vague words like “eco-friendly”, “green”, “organic” or “natural” without being able to demonstrate how the product or service avoids a negative impact on the environment.


The story of how the term greenwashing was coined is a great one. In 1983, Jay Westervelt traveled to Fiji to surf. While visiting a resort, he saw a note asking customers to pick up their towels. “It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage,” Westerveld recalls. The message was: Help us to help our environment. He was struck by the irony of this note - with the resort claiming to protect the island’s ecosystem, while expanding and destroying more land at the same time. This is a prime example of greenwashing: Making a claim that an action is reducing damage on the environment, when in fact it is doing nothing of the sort.


Three years later, in 1986, he remembered the note while writing a term paper on multiculturalism. He recalls, “I finally wrote something like, ‘It all comes out in the greenwash.’ A person in his class worked for a literary magazine and had Westervelt write an essay about it. As the magazine had a large readership in New York City, the term became more mainstream following this initial exposure. Cool, right?!


In the mid-1980s, Chevron, oil industry giant, produced a series of television and print ads to broadcast its environmental dedication. Whilst the infamous “The People Do” campaign ran, Chevron was actively violating the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, as well as spilling oil into wildlife areas. In 1989, chemical company DuPont announced its double-hulled oil tankers with ads featuring marine animals prancing in chorus to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It turned out the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. that year. In an infamous move that would go on to mainstream the word “carbon footprint”, which we wrote about recently, British Petroleum hired renowned public relations professionals Ogilvy & Mather to promote the slant that climate change is the fault of individuals alone (rather than looking at how exactly energy is produced)...


Perhaps some of the most famous greenwashing scandals in modern times can be found in the automotive industry. Let’s face it, there’s nothing ‘clean’ about diesel vehicles that spew pollutants at levels way over the legal limit… In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many VW cars being sold in America had a "defeat device" (/software) in diesel engines that could detect when they were being tested, changing the performance accordingly to improve results. Essentially, they were able to manipulate the data to demonstrate that these cars were emitting less pollutants than a regular diesel engine...


The EPA has said that these VW engines had computer software that could sense test scenarios by monitoring speed, engine operation, air pressure and even the position of the steering wheel. When the cars were being tested in controlled laboratory conditions, the device appears to have put the vehicle into a sort of safety mode in which the engine ran below normal power and performance. Once on the road, the engines switched out of this test mode. The result? The engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US.


Several other car manufacturers have faced similar allegations in recent years, including BMW, Chevrolet, Ford and Mercedes-Benz. In the latest case of Mercedes-Benz, class-action plaintiffs alleged that the luxury carmaker’s BlueTEC vehicles, which are marketed as 'clean diesel' and 'Earth friendly,' release nitrogen oxides at levels more than 65 times higher than what the EPA allows.


Next up are Nestlé USA, who were accused of allegedly labelling certain chocolate products using phrases such as “sustainably sourced” and “supports farmers” to make consumers believe that the cocoa used in them was produced using environmentally and socially responsible standards, when according to the plaintiffs suing them, the cocoa was sourced from farms that use child and slave labor. According to the complaint, the chocolate industry destroys rainforests in West Africa and uses chemicals that pollute waterways, kills wildlife, and harms communities.


Nestlé has come under fire many times for instances of greenwashing, and was identified as the worst polluter as part of an 8-day cleanup and brand audit of plastic pollution found at Freedom Island in the Philippines in 2017. During a week-long beach clean up and audit at Freedom Island in Manila Bay, Nestle, Unilever, and an Indonesian company were found to be the top three contributors of plastic waste discovered in the area, contributing to the 1.88 million metric tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste in the Philippines per year.


Now, let’s talk about the fast fashion industry, another one complicit in falsely marketing their clothes are sustainably produced. Swedish fast fashion retailer H&M first dropped its “Conscious Collection” in 2010, but has never been very specific about what it means by “conscious”. In the brand’s description, it said that the clothes were made “with sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.” They have also not mentioned how ethical the company treats its employees down the supply chain, and recently were called out for firing more than 1,000 workers in a garment factory without warning, after H&M cancelled their orders amid the coronavirus pandemic.


Greenwashing is, unfortunately, still alive and well. And as far as we can see, until governments start to regulate the use of terms such as ‘sustainable’ in the same way they monitor the use of terms such as ‘organic’, it’s going to be up to us consumers to spot what’s really going on... The best we can do is to evaluate a company based on how transparent they are about their business practices.


One example of transparency in business is activist outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia. Unlike most companies, Patagonia doesn't sugarcoat its use of chemicals or the fact that it leaves a footprint. The company's sustainability mission is described as a "struggle to become a responsible company."


A few tips from us:

  1. Beware of branding. There are marketing teams that are responsible for manipulating the messaging a company sends out, whether it can be found on the label of a product or the slogan a corporation uses for an environmentally minded campaign. Words matter, and words are powerful. Pay attention to what brands are really saying, and make sure to connect the words to legitimate actions.

  2. Do not take a slogan on face-value. Dig into the company’s practices and see if they have an ethical supply chain or if there is any controversy surrounding their actions. For example, just because Nestle claims to sustainably source their chocolate does not mean they actually are! I know, I know… still seems unbelievable that this can even happen!

  3. Look for the best certifications. Not all seals are legitimate, for example, a few years back, the U.S. Federal Trade Commision targeted Tested Green when they discovered companies were buying the Tested Green label for $200 to $500. The ISO (International Standard of Organization) created a database with different environmental certifications for public use.


If you’re interested in finding more, here are the 7 sins of greenwashing, a guide to educate you on the various forms of greenwashing to look out for. There’s very little you can’t find online; whether it’s the lawsuits filed against companies for greenwashing or more information about how ethically they treat their employees. The biggest takeaway from this? A little digging online can go a long way...


Here at Capture, we are fuelled by our mission to make ‘planet-friendly living possible, for everyone’... but we still have work to do ourselves on defining what it really means to live in a planet-friendly way. We aim to be as transparent as possible with our users about our mission, our products, and how we run our company.

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