Greenwashing Is Everywhere: What Can You Do About It?
Wow, it’s crazy how many companies are going green!
ExxonMobil, Coca Cola, and even McDonald’s are all embracing environmental sustainability.
I guess we no longer have to worry about climate change or ecosystem collapse, right?
While it may sound lovely, all this talk we hear about companies taking steps to reduce their impact often boils down to something more sinister: greenwashing.
So let’s dive into this confusing topic, and go over some prime examples of greenwashing in action.
What is greenwashing?
Have you ever felt like all these sustainable claims you see made by brands that are notoriously bad for the planet can’t possibly be true?
Congratulations, your prize is nothing – except the fulfilling experience of being manipulated, and your gut instincts were most likely correct.
Merriam-Webster defines greenwashing as:
“The act or practice of making a product, policy, or activity appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is”
And it’s no secret that since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, human industrial activities have been both destroying and warming the planet.
Energy use – things like electricity, heat, and transport – is the main source of warming greenhouse gasses.
Most of this energy comes from burning fossil fuels, which in turn supplies rich and powerful industries with hundreds of billions of dollars in profits.
Each year, the oil and gas industry spends a small fraction of these profits (which is still hundreds of millions of dollars) lobbying to influence public policy and voter perspectives, allowing them to keep doing what they do best.
This kind of lobbying is designed to distract, mislead, and misinform us all; and in many cases draw our attention away from clearly harmful products towards new ones that have less obvious, hidden issues.
According to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a non-profit organization whose goal is to prevent the spread of online misinformation, the oil industry spent $24 million in Google search ads between 2020 and 2022.
And just to be clear – these weren’t ads attempting to sell you crude oil or gasoline. The money was used for advertisements targeting Google users who searched for things like “eco-friendly” and “net zero”.
Confused about why they would do that?
That’s kind of the point – so let me explain a bit more.
A good example of how this works is actually by using this blog post you’re reading right now – a piece of content independently published, without the use of any search ads.
But, if you’re searching Google for info on greenwashing, this may be what your search results look like without any ad blockers:
And I’m not saying every paid placement has malicious intent – the point is that these are bought and paid for positions.
So, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re clicking on – and many people don’t even realize they’re clicking on ads – you may find yourself reading an article published by petroleum companies who pay to be on top, and are doing so in order to influence your opinions on climate change and related topics.
Why is greenwashing bad?
Corporations are listening to consumers. They’re acknowledging our desires to make the world a better place and they’re changing their strategies accordingly; meaning greenwashing and spawning harmful delusions like climate change denialism as they rake in profits.
They’re discovering it’s much more profitable to make us feel better than to actually tackle the problem.
In one example of how misleading these adverts can be, BP boasted that it was committed to “zero routine flaring”, which refers to the burning off of waste natural gas.
This is the same company revealed to have huge unreported gas flaring emissions, directly contradicting what their ads are saying.
The idea here is for the public to associate environmentally positive terms, like “eco-friendly company”, with the very same ones pillaging our world.
And they’re not above lying and manipulation to get there.
Royal Dutch Shell recently announced its plans to cut their carbon footprint in half by 2030, conveniently whispering the part where they don’t mean to include the end use of their products.
ExxonMobil has a similar campaign boasting a target of “net-zero by 2050”, but that doesn’t include the impact of companies they hold a stake in, which have plans to continue gas and oil exploration.
And it’s not just the oil industry – banks are in on this too.
In 2020, JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the US and among the biggest financial companies in the world hit the headlines by spelling out their commitment to fighting climate change.
Instead of pressuring oil companies to reduce their emissions, the firm encouraged efficiency and “carbon intensity”, perpetuating the myth of uncapped growth and ignoring the destruction it brings globally.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with oil companies and banks trying to make themselves look good; greenwashing has infected every consumer choice there is, and it seems that with every corporate niche that opens, an ecological niche is jeopardized.
Greenwashing includes everything from manipulation to flat-out lies, and it ranges from advertising campaigns to simple false claims about a product being sustainable, when it really isn’t anywhere close to that.
Most of us aren’t buying oil by the barrel, obviously – but many of the products we do purchase are still vulnerable to these lies.
Let’s look at a few of the most common greenwashing schemes:
Carbon offsetting is a way for companies to give the impression they’re doing their part to lower their carbon footprint, by tracking the amount of CO2 they spew into the atmosphere and offsetting those emissions by planting trees.
This is one of the most popular solutions proposed for carbon offsetting – but it mainly just provides an illusion of helping at a fraction of the cost of actually doing anything useful.
Aside from the fact that a tree may take 20 years to provide a net reduction in CO2, tree planting schemes are plagued by ignorance, inconsistency, and laziness.
Some common issues include:
- Trees planted in the wrong place, where they won’t thrive
- The wrong kind of trees planted, such as non-native species
- Only one type of tree is planted, creating monoculture forests
- Trees are harvested before maturing, or simply just die early deaths
Meat and dairy industries
The dairy and meat industry is responsible for a significant amount of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and a rapid global phaseout has the potential to stabilize greenhouse gas levels for 30 years, offsetting nearly 70% of CO2 emissions this century.
And most people simply don’t want to hear that – and neither does the animal agriculture industry, so their greenwashing is happily accepted in exchange for cheeseburgers.
Lobbying efforts on behalf of animal agriculture have been around for almost a century in the US. In fact, the meat lobby is believed to have skewed US dietary guidelines in their favor in the past.
So, what does meat and dairy greenwashing look like?
- Grass-fed beef uses significantly more land before being shipped across the world
- Regenerative grazing requires deforestation and is by no means carbon negative like many claim
- There’s virtually zero requirements for a grass-fed label to be verified by a farm audit or inspection to ensure their claims are true
Not only are things like cattle pastures not a climate solution – they directly contribute to the problem, and this is without even discussing the levels of health-related greenwashing within the animal industry.
Sustainable agricultural concepts are starting to take off, however, which offers a bit of hope in light of these brazen greenwashing schemes.
Even your trips abroad aren’t safe from greenwashing.
Ecotourism, eco-lodges, animal sanctuaries, and even whale-watching experiences may be peddling lies and half-truths in order to part you with your money.
- Whale watching boats often negatively impact whales and other animals
- Ecotourist resorts cause similar environmental stress as conventional ones
- Other kinds of wildlife tourism often directly harms the animals involved
People will pay good money for the illusion of an ethical alternative, and tourist companies are happy to oblige.
Unfortunately, many of the countries that still have lots of wildlife in them are also less politically stable and poorly regulated; so small community tours can become as big of a threat as larger companies.
Most of us are aware of the issues with plastic pollution – just take a walk outside and you’re sure to find insane amounts of plastic trash anywhere you look.
And there are also countless ways in which plastics are at the forefront of greenwashing schemes.
While high-profile events like banning plastic straws and replacing grocery bags are great ways to make us feel like we’re contributing less to the plastics problem, the issues are much more complex than that:
- Plastic recycling in general doesn’t work, and was designed to fail
- Clothing made from recycled plastic bottles transforms them into microplastics faster, and emit more of them when washed
- Although they do offer more hope, even bioplastics suffer from greenwashing
Even alternative, sustainable materials aren’t free of it. Bamboo products are a great way to reduce your plastic use – but as the industry grows and we find new uses for the material, we also need to get better at spotting bamboo greenwashing.
These industries are not stupid
Why doesn’t the fossil fuel industry just switch to renewable energy instead of greenwashing?
Why don’t clothing brands invest in making sustainable hemp more fashionable?
Why doesn’t the meat industry spend money showing people how delicious and healthy plant based meat can be instead?
Make no mistake about it; they will, when it becomes profitable.
These are some of the most informed, well-researched organizations on the planet. With daily profits in the billions, they know exactly what they’re doing, and what the most cost-effective business decisions are.
In 2022, oil companies reported their highest annual profits ever, which means renewables have a lot to compete with from a financial perspective.
And that’s the point. These companies are not concerned with what is good for you or the planet – profits are their only incentives to act.
Despite climate grief and anxiety being so common, it’s still cheaper to trick the masses, and this is largely due to governments refusing to reel them in.
Industry lobbyists stifle environmental policy, and it’s clear much of the responsibility of changing things will fall on all of us; but for that to happen consumers need to be more vigilant.
What can we do about greenwashing?
Industries that are destructive, unhealthy, and cruel (but highly profitable) fight tooth and nail to stay relevant for as long as possible when threatened by growing consumer awareness.
So, it’s our job to nurture this expanding collective awareness, and put continuous pressure on these companies by voting with our money. These corporations are fueled by profits, and this weakness can become our strength.
Most of us are willing to pay more for sustainable products, which is why these companies profit so much from greenwashing. So, we now need to show them that we won’t continue to be fooled.
Staying informed, informing others, and spreading the word about greenwashing schemes is one way to tackle this issue at the ground level, and may be the best way to force governments to step in where necessary.
While forms of activism like climate lockdowns are also a possibility, it would be a shame if it came down to that, when it’s entirely possible for these industries to change.
We need to make it profitable for industries to switch to sustainable options by making it prohibitively expensive not to – and companies need to be held accountable for their claims.
With climate tipping points rapidly approaching, taking action in your life and encouraging political change and sustainable lifestyles (like veganism) is of vital importance – as this is without a doubt the most important decade in human history.
Greenwashing is everywhere, and it impedes our ability to effectively combat climate change.
With soaring profits, corporations attempt to manipulate us into believing their lies everyday, but we do have the power to change this.
How do you feel like you’ve been impacted by greenwashing?