According to international research by TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency, 98 percent of North American big-box retail brands are guilty of greenwashing, a practice in which a company promotes its products as eco-friendly (or “green”) to maintain a positive brand image—rather than actually investing money in implementing sustainable practices.
The Advertising Standards Authority has clamped down on several big companies in recent years over greenwashing ads, including the airline Ryanair, the carmaker BMW, and the oil and gas company Shell. In the fashion industry, brands that violate consumer protection laws by making false or misleading environmental claims are being forced to change their advertising or face court cases, the Guardian reported in January 2022. The fashion industry faces increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impacts; studies indicate that the clothing industry accounts for two to eight percent of global carbon emissions.
To understand the nature of these deceitful strategies, TerraChoice identifies what it calls the “Seven Sins” of greenwashing, including hidden trade-offs (cosmetics brand Garnier is officially approved as “cruelty-free” and “eco-friendly,” while its parent organization L’Oreal, tests on animals); no proof (beauty products that label themselves as “cruelty-free” without detailing what organization certified the product as such); vagueness (including assertions that a product is “all-natural” without providing evidence); worshipping false labels (fake certifications, such as SC Johnson (which owns Windex) created its own “Green-List” instead of complying with independent certification); irrelevance (mentioning unrelated or irrelevant environmental issues, as in Singapore where biodegradeable packaging doesn’t make a difference because waste is burned); lesser of two evils (BP and McKinsey campaigns to promote aviation fuel that promises to “decarbonize flying”); and fibbing (environmental claims that are straight-up lies, as was exposed in the 2015 Volkswagen emissions scandal.)
“Since environmentalism doesn’t coincide with capitalism, much of greenwashing remains hidden because awareness of it goes against government and companies’ interests,” Sonya Turova reported for Shout Out UK. “By becoming informed consumers, we empower ourselves,” making “wiser, more ethical choices” that also cause “less environmental damage in the long run.”
Corporate news coverage of greenwashing is limited. Instead of comprehensive investigations on the widespread prevalence of it, corporate news reports tend to focus on individual instances involving specific products, including, for example, Bitcoin (covered by the New York Times), Exxon’s biofuels (in the Wall Street Journal) and the meat industry (in the Washington Post).
Sarah Butler, “Dirty Greenwashing: Watchdog Targets Fashion Brands Over Misleading Claims.” The Guardian, January 14, 2022.
Sonya Turova, “Greenwashing: How Companies Dupe Us Into Buying Misleading Eco-Products.” Shoutout UK, January 10, 2022.
Student Researcher: Ella Steel (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)