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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Greenwashing is incredibly problematic for the environment, consumers, and the ecological movement as a whole. Not only is it irresponsible and unethical, it values profit and brand image over real impact.

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We are in an economic market where brands, businesses, organisations, causes, and the government, all feel as though they must become virtuous – they must stand for something, promote or explain something, and act towards some social, economic, climate-related or other goal. Businesses need to be seen to be doing good, which often means that they also need to be seen to be good – to be virtuous. Whether big companies should be the promoters of virtue in our societies is another discussion altogether, but here we will focus on the virtue of being eco-friendly, which so many companies now claim to be.

Let’s start off by recognising a simple but sobering truth: the most eco-friendly product is the one you don’t buy. Every time you ‘consume’ something – whether it is eco-friendly natural organic dishwashing liquid, plastic wrap for your lunchtime sandwiches, or a new energy efficient toaster because the one you’ve got ‘seems old’, you are using resources which were grown or produced using fossil fuels, transported around the country or the world, set on shelves with lighting, heating or cooling systems, and eventually sold to you. If you had decided not to make that purchase, no resources would have been consumed. This is the basis of ecological sobriety in consumerism – only purchasing things that we really need, and when we do make purchases, knowing exactly what it is that we are purchasing.

All advertising is an attempt to get you to leave this realisation of non-consumption, and incite you to purchase something – whether you actually need it or not. Advertising creates desires, and then shows you how the particular product or service involved will meet this new desire. Therefore, to some extent, all advertising is taking you away from an eco-friendly standpoint, because it creates desires which you then fulfill by consuming things, which is not eco-friendly.

Some advertising, however, is not merely informative about the particular product. Labels are a good example of informative advertising: we can see the amount of CO2 emitted in the production of a good, we can see how energy efficient it is, we can see the ingredients in a food item: this helps us decide which product to purchase. Other advertising seeks to convince us that the brand is good, the company is virtuous, is looking after the planet, is concerned with its workers’ rights and health, etc. This advertising can be informative, but very often it is suggestive, making claims and associations which are only partly true.

Let’s take the example of Vanish stain remover products. Recently, the company has been advertising on television that huge amounts of textiles are going to landfill each year (link to the international version of the ad, the above is the NZ version). The company sees this part of the advertisement as a commitment to informing the public about the ecological impact of their actions. It’s advertising brownie points because they’re “showing” they “care” about waste. It also creates emotions: we don’t want to be wasteful, we want to save the planet, etc. We’re now more open to receiving their message.

The second part of the advert suggests that by using Vanish products, you can remove the stains from your clothes and stop them from going to landfill. Let’s think about this: when you last stained your white t-shirt, did you immediately think to just throw it out and buy another one? I asked around, and no-one I talked to said that this would be their first response. They would either just wear it stained, they would buy a stain remover when they’re at the supermarket next, they would upcycle the t-shirt and use it for something else, or they would give it away. Vanish seem to think that a large proportion of the textiles (not just clothes, remember) going to landfill go there because they have a stain on them that could have been removed with their stain removal liquid. This is nonsense.

Not only are Vanish trying to appear as if they care for the environment, they are also trying to make you feel bad for throwing away so many clothes which could have been cleaned with their products (which, most likely, you don’t even do in the first place). When you see the advertisement, you’ll either just ignore it, or you might think next time you’re in the supermarket looking for a stain remover that Vanish was the brand that was concerned with the environment, so you choose this one to ‘feel better’ about your consumption decisions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most Vanish products contain surfactants, which are highly toxic to aquatic life. Furthermore, the synthetic chemicals in Vanish products such as phosphates cause toxic algae to grow in waterways, starving all other life of oxygen and eventually killing the whole ecosystem. Their products are, therefore, far from ‘eco-friendly,’ and they might pretend to care about waste, but they certainly don’t care about the environment if they sell products which enter the water system and kill whole ecosystems.

This is greenwashing. The company have in this case made a true claim – washing your clothes keeps them from going to landfill – but it is so far removed from the everyday behaviours of most people that it just becomes ridiculous. Further, in order to divert attention away from the harmful effects of the chemicals in their products, they are talking about textile waste to appear as if they are virtuous and care about the environment. They forget that each time someone purchases a BOTTLE of their product, this bottle becomes waste, which in most cases in New Zealand, is unfortunately not recycled. So, they really aren’t contributing to the waste problem in any positive way. In the end, most people who see the advertisement will either ignore it, label it as greenwashing, or unfortunately think that Vanish really do care about the environment.

Why is greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing is therefore any advertising or advertising message which leads a person to erroneously believe in the real ecological qualities of a product or service, or in the reality of the production process, lifecycle, sustainable development of the company, or any other ‘environmental action’ or commitment performed by the company.

Greenwashing is harmful to the ecological movement, to the consumer, and to the environment:

  1. Greenwashing means that consumers lose trust in companies, and this has a harmful impact on the companies who are actually engaged in climate-friendly practices, regenerative agriculture, and other engagements.
  2. Greenwashing has the opposite effect on the real state of the environment: if we believe that we are acting and we’re not, then the state of ecosystems and the pollution in the environment is just going to get worse.
  3. Greenwashing prevents real solutions from being developed and rolled out on a large scale: because we believe that we are already solving the large ecological issues through consumer behaviours which change very little, we stop innovating and stop trying to implement solutions that might have a larger real impact.
  4. Greenwashing makes us believe that we’re being eco-friendly, it makes us feel good, when in fact we are not having any real, measurable positive impact on the environment in our consumption choices. It also makes us feel like we’re already doing our part, when in fact we should and could be doing so much more.
  5. Greenwashing often diverts attention away from more problematic parts of a company, towards small and insignificant gestures, e.g. a petrol station selling organic coffee. What’s really important is forgotten.

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What laws are in place to stop greenwashing?

In New Zealand, like in the United States, there is a Fair Trading Act which is managed by the Commerce Commission, but no clear anti-greenwashing law. The NZ Environmental Claims Guidelines for companies say that “All traders, large and small, must make sure their environmental claims are substantiated, truthful, and not misleading to avoid breaching the Fair Trading Act 1986.” This is the same for any other claim made by a company. The guidelines focus on information-based claims, rather than suggestive or value-based marketing which tries to position a whole brand as ecological. Information based claims are scientific and fairly easy to prove or disprove, but are often not the basis for adverts that commit greenwashing. These guidelines are non-binding and interpretative – they are not law.

Moreover, companies must have reasonable grounds to make their claims. “‘Reasonable grounds’ means having evidence, research, test results or similar credible information to demonstrate a solid factual foundation for the claim being made,” according to the Guidelines. In the case of ecological and climate-based research, this is incredibly difficult, however. Just as we saw with smoking and cigarette-consumption studies by cigarette companies who aimed to spread doubt among the population regarding the negative impacts of smoking; it is equally possible to find a scientist to “prove” that your product or service is “good for the environment” – because what you measure and how you measure it matters. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway investigated this ‘doubt production’. We won’t discuss this in depth here, but a good example of this is the case of emissions and food products, and what we choose to measure these products against. A study can legitimately claim that eating pork is better than eating beef in terms of emissions. However, they haven’t compared all food types, and all the alternatives: eating vegetables, legumes, tofu, etc. is even better than pork and has a significantly lower impact than any meat source, but this doesn’t help someone trying to sell pork. Picking and choosing the measurement and comparison standards is a real practice for finding ‘scientific’ evidence for the ‘eco-friendliness’ of products.

New Zealand also have a Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), and an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I emailed the BSA to ask about greenwashing and their response was: “Since the BSA complaints process only covers programmes that have already been broadcast, we can’t look at programmes that haven’t been on yet, or stop content from airing.” They can only do something if someone has said something that breaks the code, AND if someone reports it. The responsibility is therefore on the watcher or viewer to report content that breaches standards, and not on the producer of the content. Furthermore, there appears to be very little grounds for recourse on greenwashing or irresponsible discussions of the climate in the media with the BSA: it’s simply not something they are concerned about.

I also emailed the ASA, who to date have not responded. In 2019 they removed the Environmental Advertising Code, in favour of a broad Advertising Standards Code, which includes only two clauses regarding the environment, both of which relate to factual claims, and not to advertising in its more broad sense of making connections between ideas, values and engagements, and the products that a company sells. The main way in which greenwashing occurs lies outside the code, and therefore many complaints would likely not be upheld.

The UK’s ASA recently cracked down on greenwashing, pulling several commercials from air including a Persil washing powder advertisement which is still broadcast in New Zealand.  A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in the United States, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) purportedly working on much tougher greenwashing legislation and a crackdown on greenwashing in ESG reporting. The United States also have an Environmental Claims Guidance, but again this is not enshrined in law, it is just a guide for companies.

In France, new legislation has been passed in the 2021 Climate and Resilience Law to specifically target greenwashing and give new regulatory powers and punishment mechanisms to enforce the law. This law added ‘environmental impact’ to the list of ways in which allegations, indications and presentations of products can be deemed false and misleading. They also added that the ‘environmental engagements’ of the company making the claim could also be considered misleading or false, and therefore warrant punishment. This change focuses specifically on impact and engagements of the companies in question, rather than simply on the factual claims about the composition of their products. It now means that greenwashing can be more effectively policed, and there are clear ways in which companies can be brought to task over misleading and false advertising.

France also changed the punishment for greenwashing campaigns, which is different to simply breaking their equivalent of the Fair Trading Act. Not only is there a fine, which is 80% of the spending on the advertising campaign, but the company must also inform its customers and media base of the incorrect advertising, and, for 30 days following the infraction, put a notice on their website indicating that they have breached the law regarding environmental claims for their product. This enables all consumers to be made aware that what they may have heard is indeed ‘a load of rubbish.’ For any company concerned with brand image, being forced to admit you have been making false claims should be enough of a deterrent to stop major greenwashing infractions before they occur.

In France, and many European countries, it is also forbidden to write “biodegradable” (everything is biodegradable, this is a natural process which takes between a few hours and several million years to be completed…) or “respectful of the environment” or any other equivalent on the packaging of products. Why? Because these things are “obviously confusing and/or too global for the consumer.” Lawmakers know that these general and meaningless statements may attract people looking for more eco-friendly products, but they lack any specific meaning when it comes to what these words and labels refer to.

In New Zealand, therefore, there would seem to be no binding legislation against greenwashing, no active attempts on the part of the Advertising Standards Authority as in the UK to crack down on greenwashing, and no specific punishments or deterrents to greenwashing. We must be quite happy in this ignorance, believing that we are doing a lot to help the environment, rather than facing the reality that our per-capita carbon emissions are consistently in the top 10 in the OECD (that’s really, really, bad).

Cardboard box with biodegradable label
Biodegradable packaging is great, but all packaging is biodegradable - that's how nature works. Image: Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

How to identify greenwashing

There are some key characteristics of greenwashing that are commonly found in adverts that make claims about the environment. Some of these are from Mathieu Jahnich, a writer for BonPote, a French environmentalist site, who has worked in greenwashing regulation for many years.

  1. Negative environmental behaviours are trivialised, or positive ones are knocked down. E.g. negative images of public transport in a car commercial.
  2. Disproportionate claims, hyperboles, and grand language are used. E.g. “this vehicle is ecological” or “responsible production” or “we care for the planet” or “better for the environment.” Basically anything that refers to a very large commitment which almost certainly isn’t true.
  3. Lack of proof, lack of precision, or an unclear message. E.g., “eco-friendly packaging,” when we have no idea what eco-friendly packaging might be, and no criteria to assess whether this is true or not.
  4. Association between the environment and something which is not essential or not the main product of that company, e.g., petrol stations selling organic coffee to make you forget that you are purchasing fossil fuels, and no, organic coffee won’t make up for that.
  5. Visual or auditory associations with nature. If the advertising includes landscapes, trees, nature, and anything related to the environment to make connections with their product, e.g. Toyota advertising their cars driving through natural landscapes, claiming they are developing better futures.

How to combat greenwashing

Greenwashing is not only bad for the environment, it’s also bad for the whole ecological movement. It means that people believe they’re undertaking meaningful actions when they’re not, which undermines efforts to change things on a systematic level. We cannot effectively respond to the ecological crisis simply through buying more eco-friendly products; we need transformative changes at a societal level, as the IPBES’ Biodiversity and IPCC’s Climate Change reports highlight.

Here are some ways in which we can act in order to reduce or stop greenwashing:

  1. Campaign for your local environmental organisation to put more pressure on the Government to stop or ban greenwashing. There are a lot of organisations out there with a connection to Government agencies and to people who are more able to change the way our systems run. By creating anti-greenwashing campaigns, and making anti-greenwashing law one of the pillars of your environmental movement, you will be helping the integrity of the ecological movement as a whole, helping consumers to make more informed choices, and keeping companies honest and responsible for their actions. Stopping greenwashing is a really effective and easy to implement policy, and can be built upon with environmental impact reporting, carbon emissions reporting, and biodiversity/ecological impact reporting too. All these things help people make informed choices and make sure that what we do has a real impact.
  2. Denounce greenwashing on social media. The worst nightmare of any company is bad publicity. When you point out the greenwashing publicly on social media, these companies are forced to respond and to retract or defend their actions. It also helps make other people aware that they are being misled, which hopefully will mean they adopt a more critical attitude towards greenwashing in the future.
  3. Learn about greenwashing and then stop making greenwashing claims, if you work in advertising, marketing, public relations, communications, or any other forward-facing department in your company. Refuse to work for companies who just want to make it look like they’re doing good without actually having anything to back this up. Require more of your clients if they are seeking to talk about nature, organic ingredients, biodiversity, waste, environmental impact, carbon footprint, etc. If you’re a student in marketing, communications, copywriting, or a similar domain, learn more about greenwashing and about environmental claims, so that you don’t go on to create adverts that greenwash audiences.
  4. Think about what you’re seeing if you see nature in an advertisement, or hear about the environmental impact or the eco-friendliness of a product or service. Ask yourself, how is it possible that they can make this claim? Is there any evidence to back this up? What are they actually selling and does the advert relate to this or is it trying to improve the ‘brand image’?

Right now, the burden of proof and the responsibility lies with the members of the public who have to report these adverts for any investigation to be made. I propose that we reverse the burden of proof and put it back on the companies who are producing these advertisements: in order for your advertisement to be broadcast, if you wish to talk about the environment, nature, ecology, biodiversity, waste, organic/natural components/ingredients, etc., in your advertising, then you must submit, with your advertisement, an analysis of your claims and the proof that lies behind them, as well as a consideration of the ecological impact of the whole company and production process, if the ad is not product-specific. This will then be assessed by a jury before the broadcasting company can broadcast any advertising. This way, companies will be made responsible for their claims before the advertising can reach a public audience. If this were the case, I’m sure we would see a lot less greenwashing, and more responsible company publicities and reporting.

 

Mathieu Jahnich, who has worked to regulate and assess greenwashing for more than 10 years, writes that the work of lawyers checking content before diffusion is very effective at reducing greenwashing in France. Yet, the control of adverts is very often still optional in France, and this means that often adverts are not checked and therefore are released without any verification of the message involved. New Zealand has no such control measures in place, yet due to its small size, it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to set up a regulatory body for this role.

As is the case in France, we should also ban the use of ‘biodegradable’ and other such meaningless terms which seek to sell products without any meaningful foundation. Other such measures could be adding compulsory disclaimers on products which are short-life or single use, alerting consumers to their high environmental impact; disclaimers on products where a local alternative is available that the same product can be found with lower emissions elsewhere; notices on all physical promotional material like flyers reminding people to recycle them rather than littering (this already happens in some cases); compulsory ecological impact tables on the packaging of all products, like the nutritional information labels on food products, and more.

 

Greenwashing is a real issue and a hindrance to the ecological movement and to our efforts to change our societies to respond to the ecological crisis that is developing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the extent to which greenwashing occurs, and often those who are developing greenwashing advertising are not aware of the nature of the claims they are making, and the impact that they really have. It’s a problem that is quite easily solved through better regulation and more awareness and knowledge of the ecological crisis, which is why sites like Plurality.eco are incredibly important.

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