Consumer, investors, voters, marketers and even corporations are increasingly aware of the harmful environmental impacts of much of what we consume and are striving to make increasingly sustainable choices and options. Unfortunately, demand for better choices has put pressure on those selling products, services and investments to attract the buyers through marketing buzzwords and meaningless claims, despite the fact that what they have on offer is really either not better, just the same or even worse than what they had before they claimed to be “eco-friendly,” “green” or “environmentally-friendly.” When companies apply terms to make people think there is an environmental benefit or advantage to that choice when there really isn’t, is called greenwashing.
The good news is that awareness and concerns about environmental impacts is seeping into all aspects of our lives and our consumer choices. Many companies are starting to do the hard work to think about their actual uses and sources of energy, the carbon content of their supply chain, the emissions from operations and the sustainability of their materials and inputs. Some are making actual strides to reduce their carbon footprint and are starting to measure and report what they are doing. Unfortunately, many are not but nevertheless use greenwashing to try to persuade their audiences that they actually care.
The use of greenwashing is not limited to large corporations which rely on fossil fuels for their power. There are plenty of smaller, chic operations that include fashion brands, foods, cosmetics, diapers, plastic products and retail chains which overstate the supposed environmental benefits of their products or operations. Historically, however, the worst offenders have been the major fossil fuel companies whose operations are threatened which refuse to recognize that they have to shift their business model entirely. They typically don’t claime to be clean, just “cleaner” all while continuing to provide outsized contributions to climate change.
Greenwashing dates all the way back to the 1980s when The Guardian reported on the practices of the oil company Chevron, which commissioned advertisements persuading the public about their environmental commitment. The advertisements eventually became the topic of a case study at Harvard Business school and proved that greenwashing is contradictory and deceiving. Chevron’s gentler and greener-looking commercials—including bears and butterflies—were widely seen as attempted distraction from the immense damage the oil company caused to the environment.
Today, there is still little oversight on such claims but there is a new effort by the government to tamp down on the use of unsupported greenwashed claims. Hopefully, in the near future, companies will have to provide support for their advertised claims to allow independent verification that their products are better for the environment. The day is coming when consumers, investors and the government will be able to hold companies accountable for their claims and to sue them when what they have been selling is greenwashing.