Greenwashing: Can you market your way out of environmental degradation?

Informed consumerism requires looking past the green curtain

Consumers are becoming more and more informed; in just this semester, I’ve covered multiple issues of informed choices from what coffee you choose to drink to the clothes you buy or thrift. 

Our digital era allows us to be more aware than ever about the products and services we purchase and the companies and practices that produce them. 

However, from this growth of awareness, a new, possibly more dangerous practice has surfaced: greenwashing. 

As consumers are demanding more sustainable practices and products, many corporations uninterested in changing their destructive or unethical ways for fear of losing profit have turned to this dangerous marketing technique.

So what exactly is greenwashing and how can truly informed consumers and citizens see past this elusive green curtain?

Columnist Bruce Watson, in his 2016 article on the growth of corporate greenwashing defines greenwashing as “the corporate practice of making diverting sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record.” 

In short, greenwashing is corporations touting sustainable practices or values without having the legitimate practices or policies in place to back such claims. 

The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an age where greenwashing consisted of TV ads that today sought to do exactly that; for example, the oil company Chevron ran a campaign called “People Do” in the 1980’s with hundred-thousand dollar television ads featuring bears, butterflies, coral reefs and sprawling wilderness that targeted states with the heaviest regulations on their industry. 

Their goal was to change public opinion on their environmental track record and redirect attention from the destructive realities of their practices, and they did so by appealing to basic environmentalist values. 

Today, greenwashing has taken on many more evolved and more dangerous forms, forming a thick green curtain that many consumers won’t know or care to look past. 

Even stout environmentalists can struggle to distinguish greenwashing from truly sustainable practices, and while I am far from an expert on this topic, some of the best tips I have learned for identifying and avoiding greenwashing industries are as follows:

1. Do your research: It is really easy for corporations to advertise what seem like sustainable practices, but it is not as easy for them to follow up with their promises or even state objective facts. 

Furthermore, the same corporations who claim to be “sustainable” or “green” for one or two initiatives could very easily be causing large ecological damage in other realms. It is always a good idea to research corporations and their practices towards their workers, the planet and their consumers, because after all, actions do speak louder than words.

2. Look for third-party certifications: Greenwashing can often take the form of corporations indulge in self-praise for their “achievements,” but there are many outside, unbiased organizations that can confirm or deny such claims. Fair Trade, B Corporation, Rainforest Alliance and Green Seal are just a few of the third-party organizations/certifications that set rigorous standards on sustainability. 

A lack of endorsements from environmental interest groups, green certifications or public support are all red flags that the company in question is likely greenwashing.

3. Research their political activism: Once again, sustainable practices go a lot deeper than savvy marketing techniques. 

Many companies with large marketing sectors are often also politically and publicly engaged; to determine how sustainable corporations really are versus how sustainable they say they are, look into the policies, interest groups, and representatives they may lobby for or against. 

These corporate actions can very quickly reveal whether or not environmentalist values are truly in line with those of the company in question. 

4. Speak up and spread the word: Dialogue on these issues is crucial, and sharing what you find out in your research should be shared with others. 

Starting conversations with friends, family members, classmates and colleagues about greenwashing is important to helping our entire community become more informed and ethical consumers. 

Altogether, greenwashing is an issue that seeks to outsmart informed consumers, but with a little research and the right resources, we can work to cultivate more informed consumer bases, and in turn, demand more genuinely sustainable practices for the health of our communities and our ecosystems.

~James Duffy, Staff Writer~

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