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What’s the Problem with Greenwashing?

Greenwashing – abusing a good intention

As most of you know, the topic of sustainability is very important to me. Both my final paper at high-school (in 2008!), as well as my bachelor’s and master’s thesis, have dealt with the topics of climate change, sustainability, conscious consumption, and ecological ethics. And if you deal with these topics a bit more, you cannot avoid the term “greenwashing”. Greenwashing actually sounds very positive. “Green” and “washing” are nothing negative per se. I want to show you what this term is all about and which difficulties can be associated with it.

Greenwashing is defined as the attempt of a company to appear more environmentally aware than it actually is. Especially the missing deep conviction for the topic of sustainability is the problem. This means that a company communicates certain sustainable, responsible, and environmentally desirable convictions and actions to the outside but in reality does not do justice to them. Nor had it the intent to ever do them justice.

So, a “green image” is faked through PR and green-marketing without really doing anything about it. The motivation for this falsified appearance to the outside lies mostly in the conscious consumer deception. This seemingly responsible and environmentally conscious behavior is called “greenwashing”. Thus, companies that greenwash prevents really responsible consumption and harm honest suppliers.

What are the dangers of greenwashing?

The problem with greenwashing is that the credibility of providers who are really sustainable and environmentally conscious gets undermined. Many smaller companies have been established because they wanted to do something “different” than the big ones, who beat their profits on the backs of man, animal, and nature. A small example that occurs to me in this context is also very macabre at the same time: In Germany, the Rügenwalder Mühle was for a long time one of the largest processors of animal meat from factory farming. Now they are putting on the vegan/vegetarian track, taking consumers away from companies like Taifun because they offer similar products.

Of course, due to their size, they have a very different business plan and can offer cheaper products. Since most customers look at the price, they buy the cheaper version. So, it may go for the affordable products that have initially bought at Taifun which is slightly more expensive.

This happens not only in the food sector but also in clothing. In the meantime, you will also find an “eco-line”, organic cotton items, recycled clothes, etc. at almost all major brands. H&M also has a “Conscious Collection”. However, the fewest question when buying whether this “green” line is not produced in the same low-wage countries under catastrophic working conditions. At the same time, tons of clothes from the overproduction are burned behind the green curtain. Discreetly hushed up. So, greenwashing can also be abused as a diversion maneuver for the dirty core business.

Further problems of greenwashing

The problem is that companies that do greenwash are not interested in making a difference. Rather, the motivation is to wrangle some money out of those who do not know better. Or do not question whether the goods are really sustainable or not. False claims and misleading words in advertisement can cause serious consumer deception.

It is also a big problem that many consumers are generally unsettled and resign. It contributes to consumer skepticism of all green claims. Plus, it diminishes the power of driving companies towards greener solutions for manufacturing processes, products, working conditions and business operations. Before consumers ever buy something sustainable, they generally turn away from it. They think that it has no purpose anyway, as usually only negative examples remain in the memory, see exhaust gas scandals, etc. In addition, the transparency of e.g. sustainable production and social engagement for consumers is always difficult to control or judge.

Greenwashing of the meat industry at its best
Greenwashing of the meat industry at its best

Up one minute, down the next

On the one hand, I am personally very happy that topics such as “veganism” and “sustainability” are becoming more and more present and socially capable. It’s getting easier and easier for me to eat vegan on the go. Theoretically, I could even eat more than chips and a garden salad at McDonald’s, as now a vegan burger is offered. The patty, however, comes from Garden Gourmet, a daughter of Nestlé. I probably don’t need to say more about that. In addition, for the other, non-vegan burgers, Cargill still clears hectares of rainforest for animal feed.

Theoretically, I could eat at McDonald’s & Co. But personally I’ll do a hell of it, because I cannot reconcile it with my conscience and don’t want to support such a corporation. Of course, it’s great that this kind of taboo topic is broken up a bit. It is becoming ever more sociable to be more sustainable and vegan! Plus, McDonald’s also uses the green color more and more often to fabricate a “green image”.

Greenwashing by using the Animal Welfare Labelling

Especially in recent times, the Animal Welfare Labelling is much discussed in Germany. It is intended to indicate that animals were kept under “better” circumstances. What is “better”? What is “good” at all? This is a really good question! It is certain that no animal would sacrifice its life voluntarily to land on the plate or in a box as a Big Mac. Keeping this in mind, 0.15 m2 more space for pigs than legally prescribed in factory farming sounds really laughable.

Any purchase, however, is a conscious decision for or against something. Every penny counts. While products from smaller companies may seem more expensive at first, it’s definitely the better choice. And yes, I prefer to be hungry than to support this wrong world. Still, there are several ecolabels trying to make the consumer’s decisions of buying environmentally friendly easier.

Of course, it is also nice to see that more and more companies are dealing with our nature, the environment, and the responsible use of our resources. Nevertheless, we should not disregard the motivation behind it. In my opinion, it always makes more sense to support someone who does something with the fullest conviction and the deepest heart than someone who pursues something just to make a profit. That’s one of the reasons I try to support small eco-labels such as “Lounge Cherie”. Looking for sustainable and fair fashion? Have a look right here!

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Greenwashing sounds like something ecological and worth striving for. I'll tell you why exactly this is the problem behind it!

Sources for this blogpost

Koths, G./Holl, F. 2012: Verantwortungsvoller Konsum – ein Problem asymmetrisch verteilter Information?, in:  Schneider, A./Schmidpeter, R. (Hrsg.), Corporate Social Responsibility – Verantwortungsvolle Unternehmensführung in Theorie und Praxis, 2012, S. 663-679, Berlin und Heidelberg.

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