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Greenwashing – The Biggest Threat to the Climate Movement

Consumers today are more informed than ever before. In an age where limitless information is so easily accessible to everybody and anybody, it is growing increasingly difficult for big companies to conceal their practices. While there was once a time when the masses had to blindly accept whatever companies and their advertisements chose to tell them, that naivety has all but vanished with the increasing omnipresence of the internet.

Now, everything a company presents to their audience is scrutinised, questioned and, if found lacking, challenged. This can come with potentially disastrous consequences for the business in question if artifice is exposed. However, if left unchecked, the exploits of big businesses masquerading as environmentally friendly can have far more catastrophic consequences for the fight against climate change.

In today’s world, it is not enough for businesses to simply produce a high-quality product or to satisfy the immediate needs of the customer; they must stand for something.

The dawn of the information age has cast a piercing light on many issues which were previously overlooked or ignored by the majority. This has led to the average purchaser being more aware of social issues, and that same awareness has grown into passionate activism for many, particularly for the young.

The end of the consumer’s ignorance has led to the beginning of companies’ unavoidable culpability.

While many companies have adapted with the times and rose to the occasion, there are those that have only grown more sophisticated with their means of deceit and fraudulence. And this deception may prove to be the biggest and most damaging threat posed to the environment moving forward.

But What Exactly is Greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was first coined in the 1980s. A young undergraduate student named Jay Westerveld was at a hotel resort in Fiji when he noticed signs asking residents to pick up their towels from the beach and to reuse them. The hotel claimed this was in order to help preserve the ocean and its coral reefs.

He was struck by the immense irony of this, as the same hotel resort was expanding its property on land and sea and therefore doing great harm to the local ecosystem and its coral reefs.

It was clear that the only reason the hotel wanted residents to recycle their towels was so they did not have to buy new ones as frequently and could save money.

Sometime later, after graduating college, Westerveld remembered the incident while writing an essay for a magazine in New York. Due to the popularity of the piece, the term officially entered the public lexicon, forever changing the way big companies do business and their relationship with the consumer.

As is clearly demonstrated from the above example, greenwashing is when an organisation misleadingly markets themselves to be more environmentally friendly in their products and practices than they really are.

They may only be less environmentally beneficial than they portray themselves, or they may be causing severe damage to the environment and attempting to obscure it from public view.

Information and knowledge is paramount in the fight against climate change and greenwashing.

Green is the New Black

In an age where climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing issues worldwide, green has become the new black. In order for a company to succeed in today’s world, it is paramount that they are seen as green. They will advertise their greenness on logos and branding, in commercials and special offers. But it is important to know for certain how they are directly contributing to the betterment of the environment.

An unfortunate side effect of the increasingly impassioned calls for immediate action on climate change is that greenwashing is becoming more prevalent. Greenwashing is often achieved through plainly deceptive advertising, false or ambiguous claims and using outdated or distorted data and statistics.

Sometimes, greenwashing can even be unintentional and not necessarily the result of a calculated scheme. Greenwashing can be caused by overly eager or enthusiastic marketing that inadvertently paints an inaccurate or incomplete picture of a company’s environmental undertakings.

Similarly, companies may fail to realise that the standards of environmental friendliness have changed or that the goalpost of new climate change targets have been moved. Nevertheless, the effects are the same and just as damaging.

Former vice president and ardent environmentalist, Al Gore, recently stated that greenwashing was a rapidly rising threat which could derail the fight against climate change. How can consumers effectively contribute to the fight against climate change when some unscrupulous companies are confusing and exploiting them with spurious claims, corrupt misinformation and false promises.

In spite of their best intentions, consumers may unwittingly impede the progress of environmentalism by supporting companies which have misled them. This is why it is essential for the discerning consumer to know and recognise the trademark features of greenwashing.

Greenwashing – How to Spot It and How to Stop It

It isn’t always easy to know what companies are actually minimising their carbon footprint and what companies are spending more time and effort on marketing their alleged green attributes instead of actively being green. Thankfully, however, there are many tell-tale signs that a company may be greenwashing. Here is a list of some indications that a company isn’t doing as much to protect the environment as they would want you to believe.

A lack of evidence or proof: Making a claim about being environmentally friendly but without any hard information, data, statistics or examples to corroborate it. If a company says they are environmentally conscious but fails to illustrate precisely how, it is quite possible they are greenwashing.

Vagueness and ambiguity: Consumers should be wary if a company uses broad or fluffy language in relation to climate change. The use of vague or routine terms, such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’, and nothing more, could be a cause for suspicion. Avoiding particulars or failing to be specific about their environmental endeavours may mean the company only has the semblance of being eco-friendly.

Irrelevant or exaggerated claims: Making claims which, although perhaps true, are irrelevant or meaningless, such as advertising yourself as the most environmentally friendly company in an industry which is innately damaging to the environment. Examples of this include the cigarette and tobacco industry or the airline industry. It’s not much good being the best of a very bad lot.

Another example of this is focusing on one green attribute of your business when everything else about it is damaging to the environment. An example of this may be a recyclable lid for a plastic bottle which is non-biodegradable.

Out-of-date data: If a company is using data or statistics that is more than a few years old to emphasise their eco-friendliness, they’re almost certainly either no longer as eco-friendly or not eco-friendly by today’s standards. If a company doesn’t have recent or current data to offer on their practices, a consumer should be suspicious.

Needlessly complicated language or jargon: If a company uses hopelessly confusing, incomprehensible language, or terms and phrases that only an environmental scientist could fully understand, they may be trying to hide something. The environmental practices of a company should be simple, specific and easy to comprehend by everyone. A lack of transparency should always be a cause for concern.

Straight-up lies: Finally, and most boldly, some companies may just simply lie outright about their greenness without any attempt of stretching or embellishing the truth. In some ways, this can be the hardest hallmark of greenwashing to spot. If a company decides to just plainly lie, they can fabricate as much data or statistics as they want in order to sell the lie.

However, this is where common sense or intuition comes into play. If a company uses data or a statistic that just doesn’t feel right or rings true, you should investigate further. Likewise, if a company uses an endorsement for their greenness from a third-party you’ve never heard of or you sense lacks credibility, check their credentials. A company should always be held responsible for the environmental claims they make.

How You Can Help

The individual shouldn’t wait for big corporations to take positive environmental action. They have a responsibility to do this themselves. Many individuals have become much more connected with the environment, spending more time in nature and learning to appreciate its beauty and the immense threat it is facing. People are now finding their own ways to contribute to the environmentalism cause, through planting trees and choosing non-plastic solutions to packaging.

The environment isn’t just important to ‘tree huggers’ anymore. It is of the utmost importance to everybody who is well-informed and educated. A business that doesn’t plan for this change in value systems may suffer severe revenue loss or customer decline.

As illustrated from the above points, reliable and trustworthy information is our greatest weapon against the insidious practice of greenwashing. A lie can only prosper in the absence of informed minds. As consumers become more and more aware and knowledgeable, greenwashing is not only becoming less pervasive, but less possible.

Irish Trees offers the opportunity to plant trees to both individuals and businesses. Trees can be planted as gifts, as memorials, as a loyalty token, as a thank you to someone and as a means of celebration or marking an event. Trees can be planted by a business as a means of carbon neutralising their staff or simply as a donation to the planet.

Contact Bob Hamilton at 00353 86 2558531 to discuss how you can make a difference to the environment. One tree will be planted for every call received.

Article written by Nicholas Collender.

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