All kinds of businesses and brands are starting to use the word ‘sustainable’ in their marketing. Whether it’s a t-shirt made of ethical cotton, or an ‘eco’ car – companies are increasingly keen to showcase their green credentials.
On the surface, this is good news. The climate crisis is the biggest threat to our existence, so if corporations are pledging to reduce their carbon footprints, surely we should be celebrating?
Well, yes and no. We absolutely want to see meaningful engagement from businesses when it comes to the environment, but how can we tell the difference between real, positive commitments to change and greenwashing?
WHERE DID GREENWASHING COME FROM?
Greenwashing is a term which arose in the 1980s. American environmentalist Jay Westervelt noted how at a hotel he visited, there were signs asking guests to reuse their towels in order to “save the environment.”
Westervelt considered the vast amount of wastage he had encountered throughout the rest of the hotel, where there were no obvious efforts being made towards sustainability. Instead, he concluded, the hotel was simply trying to reduce costs by not having to wash towels as much, but were trying to market this cost-cutting ruse as eco-friendly behaviour.
Nowadays, greenwashing is taken to mean two main things. It can be when companies – usually mega corporations – try to hide or cover up their less-than-stellar environmental records with a grand, public gesture towards green causes. In an age of social media, these big PR campaigns are often criticised and scrutinised pretty quickly – as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos found out earlier this week.
But the other type of greenwashing can be a bit harder to spot, and is far more insidious. This is where companies and brands use words like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, or ‘vegan’ simply as a marketing ploy, without any deep interrogation over what those terms actually mean. And crucially – without any accountability for their actions.
BEING SEEN AS ETHICAL DRIVES PROFITABILITY
While advertising regulators do exist, there’s no universally accepted definition of what terms like ‘sustainable’ actually mean. This means big brands can market an item as ‘green’, often at a marked-up price, without adhering to a clear definition of that term.