Green or Greenwashing? Don’t get caught on the wrong side of perceptions

November 2, 2015 EcoVadis

Who would have thought a potential way to address air pollution to some extent could reside in a paint can!?

Products such as  Airlite paint, with its mesmerising environmental benefits, has revolutionized the paint industry and awed many across the world. Indeed, Green products are on the forefront of many marketing campaigns today. Worldwide, customers’ increasing demand for greener, more sustainable and less polluting products and services has triggered a reaction among companies. Even less consumer-oriented companies are following the trend:

“Allianz; BASF; Caterpillar; Dow Chemical; DuPont; …[and others].  Among these companies, revenues from sustainable products & services grew at 6X the rate of overall company revenues (from 2010 to 2014)” (from Sustainability Update)

And of course the American Business Pledge has seen public statements from many well-known businesses.

On one hand, some companies innovate and leapfrog one another in an attempt to meet customers’ environmental expectations by proposing legitimate and genuinely sustainable products.  On the other hand, some resort to greenwashing to reach their end faster.

The surge of green products has been discounted by some as being simply an expansion of greenwashing. For instance, Pandaleaks has created a buzz when they revealed that the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was accused of partnering with companies like Monsanto in view of “hiding” their duplicitous acts. Likewise, there are many marketing campaigns, which may confuse consumers seeking environmentally ethical products, such as the “Fur is green…the ultimate eco clothing” campaign by the Fur Council of Canada. In stark contrast though, other endeavours like Vaute show that fashion can be green if tackled in the right way.

Often found bouncing between fake and real green products and services, consumers often have to take actions to denounce greenwashing, as in the Woolworths case.

You could say that green has become the new black that makes environmentalists, activists and conscientious consumers alike see red.

Greenwashing defined

Implicit or explicit in nature and often expressed using pictures, direct messages, labels, partnerships, grand marketing campaigns and the like, greenwashing is the act of misleading customers on the environmental and so-called green attributes of products, services or processes. Defined as the whitewash of the environmental sector, greenwashing was initially used as a subtle marketing tactic. More recently, greenwashers have become bolder in using it as a broader marketing strategy.

Greenwashing thus consists of exaggerating the environmental and social features of a company’s product or service while understating its negative attributes for the firm’s sole benefit.

Tainted shades of green

In light of the above arguments, it is indeed of growing importance for companies to engage in responsible marketing in order to avoid consumer backlash. According to the 2010 “The Sins of Greenwashing” report by Terrachoice, their North American Consumer Market survey showed that 95% of “greener” products are somehow greenwashed. Since greenwashing has proven to be unintentional in some cases, companies must be wary of the various existing pitfalls.

The biggest ‘collateral damage’ from these Greenwashing revelations is that consumers are becoming ever more wary of the genuineness of all green products. For example, this report shows “as many as 79 percent of travelers worldwide agree that implementing eco-friendly practices is important to their choice of lodging, but research shows a majority are willing to boycott a company if misled” (Sustainable Brands Oct 12, 2015)

Proliferation of green labels

Across the world we are witnessing a new surge of green labeling and branding efforts. This is in part a reaction by companies who embrace this as a way to legitimize their green claims by referring to a third party who provides the label or certification. This has become such a strong trend, that in fact there are far too many: Ecolabel Index estimates there are almost 500 labels and counting, while consumers usually only recognize a handful. Examples of legitimate labels that are recognized include EnergyStar, LEED certification, and product stewardship certification as per the Australian Product Stewardship Bill. And yet despite government efforts, some retailers and manufacturers are pursuing their own: An example of such a challenging undertaking is WALMART’s Sustainability Index.

Looking below the surface

Expectations are rising, putting pressure for “Green”/sustainable claims to go deeper and include the supply chain. This is making it even more challenging for consumers to act as greenwashing watchdogs. In an ideal world, purchasers would have available transparent ratings on the supply chain for a company, and find a way to translate these details into a transparency statement to the end consumer, that they can understand.

But to what extent will greenwashing keep pace with genuinely green undertakings? Is greenwashing becoming so convincing we can no longer detect it? With the surge of more creative and innovative green products, services and processes, greenwashing would need to be as innovative to keep pace.  NGOs, consumers, and even employees around the world are watching closely. It would seem that the cost and effort a company would need to expend to create a convincing greenwashing deception will soon exceed the effort of simply being green and sustainable. Lets hope that day arrives soon!

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Author: Miss Theeroovengadum Nivershee Sandiana

Junior CSR Analyst at EcoVadis

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