Climate Action

Greenwashing: How Industries Lie to You

If you regularly consume product advertisements or shopper news, you have most likely come across the word “sustainability.” Consequently, depending on your news intake, you also may have come across the word “greenwashing” and seen brands you know and love be accused of it. If you’re not sure what these terms mean or how they’re relevant to consumers — here’s a guide!

What is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing happens when products or practices are falsely advertised as environmentally friendly or “green.” Companies may invest money in making themselves seem green without actually making their products more sustainable. When this happens, consumers may think they’re making an environmentally conscious choice when they are, in fact, being deceived.

Concern for the environment is on the rise, and greenwashing allows producers to adapt accordingly without facing setbacks in the market. Consumers are willing to pay more to live a more sustainable lifestyle, which renders them targets for unethical advertising tactics. Companies use deceitful advertising to make their products seem eco-friendly in order to make more money and build up their brand’s public image.

How It Works: Firstly, Guilt

Perhaps the earliest and most famous greenwashing example that had nationwide impact and disseminated the phenomenon of consumer guilt was The Crying Indian TV advertisement, which aired on Earth Day, 1971.

A man who appears to be Native American features in this advert, shedding a tear about pollution and waste caused by irresponsible public littering. Accomplished American author Ginger Strand said that this ad, paid for by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), struck “greenwash gold.” The organization’s name doesn’t exactly scream “industry friendly,” but in reality, KAB is backed by the soda and beer industries, which are the single-use plastic producers responsible for the same litter being cried over in the commercial. 

Strand wrote that the ad shifted the Indigenous person’s weariness of littering from a rejection of consumerism to a rebuke of individual laziness. In other words, the ad placed environmental responsibility on consumers instead of producers, causing a radical shift in the course of environmentalism. This transfer of blame was as effective as it was because it created a sense of guilt and shame for the audience, motivating them to take individual action instead of holding corporations accountable for polluting the environment.

Overall, the Crying Indian ad was perceived as pro-environment, despite advancing a counterproductive and outright deceptive agenda. This encapsulates the core theme of greenwashing, which has evolved since the 70s —  it is constantly reforming and reshaping to fit the culture in which it operates, all while doing little if anything to achieve sustainable outcomes. 

Second: Cognitive Dissonance

One of the areas of consumerism that plays a critical role in contemporary culture is fast fashion. As more and more environmental and humanitarian injustices in the fast fashion industry have come to light, greenwashing has quickly adjusted to conserve the profits of the producers.

The uncovering of fast fashion practices — from how it treats its labor force to the damage it wreaks on the environment to the fact it’s largely made with plastic synthetic materials —  is hard to ignore, which creates discomfort among shoppers who still buy it. This embodies cognitive dissonance, which refers to psychological discomfort we experience when our beliefs or attitudes are not in harmony with our actions. So, if a shopper is aware of the tragedies of fast fashion, yet still chooses to buy the brands responsible for it, they will experience cognitive dissonance. 

To return customers to a state of comfort that keeps them buying fast fashion and even subsequently increases sales, sellers create faux “green” or “sustainable” clothing lines. 

However, brands typically don’t disclose what makes these clothes environmentally friendly and they do not actually alter their overall business model or practices. 

Take, for example, H&M. They launched their Conscious Collection — representing less than a quarter of the clothes they produced — as a “green” initiative on a small scale in 2010 and then expanded to their Spring 2019 collection. However, they didn’t provide adequate information about what made their line sustainable. 

After being called out by The Norwegian Consumer Authority for misleading and ambiguous claims regarding their Conscious Collection, H&M disclosed that Conscious clothing consists of at least 50% “sustainable materials.” They also set a company goal of using 100% sustainable materials by 2030

The “sustainable materials” claim, however, remains vague, especially considering that there is no industry standard for what makes a source or material “sustainable.” According to H&M, cotton and recycled polyester count as sustainable. Whereas cotton is a less problematic textile option, polyester – even when recycled – is still made from oil-based plastics, sheds plastic microfibers and does not biodegrade, thus accumulating in landfills. 

However, even if H&M reached its sustainable materials goal by 2030, its business model would still be unsustainable. Why? Because they produce 3 billion clothing garments per year. As if that weren’t enough, they also strive to double their sales by 2030. With an unsustainable fast fashion model such as this, any sustainability claims made ought to be called out as greenwashing.

Similar to the Crying Indian commercial, the fashion industry puts the environmental responsibility on the consumer rather than themselves. H&M is simply offering a “sustainable” option, rather than pursuing initiatives and practices that would make them a sustainable company. “Just look for the green hangtag!” the brand suggests. 

The difference between these two examples lies in how they make consumers feel — KAB makes consumers feel guilty about ‘their’ littering as if the littering is the root of the pollution problem, while H&M tries to make shoppers feel better about themselves to resolve their cognitive dissonance. Nonetheless, both approaches successfully greenwash, and neither outcome results in any impactful steps toward sustainability. 

Thirdly, Trust 

Ultimately, greenwashing is a combination of industry rejecting the idea of real corporate accountability when it comes to environmental responsibility, making misleading or false sustainability claims, and transferring the fault for negative environmental impacts to consumers. One concept that ensures the success of greenwashing is trust. 

Until a company has been proven untrustworthy or unethical, consumers might be inclined to assume the best of them. For instance, some producers simply make false environmental claims, yet consumers don’t have a reason to question whether these claims are deceitful.

Consumer trust is what allowed Volkswagen to sell 590,000 “clean diesel” vehicles that cost them $4.3 billion in criminal and civil penalties in 2017. VW marketed their vehicles as environmentally friendly, with impressively low emissions and a 90% reduction in nitrogen oxides — pollutants that threaten environmental and human health. In reality, they implemented a defeat device that cheated emission tests, while the cars released up to 4,000 percent more nitrogen oxides than legally permitted in the U.S. 

Not only did VW mislead consumers, but they broke U.S. emission laws and allowed dangerous amounts of pollutants into the air — all for the sake of seeming environmentally friendly. However, consumers did not have a reason to distrust the company’s environmental claims, so they purchased the cars, falling victim to greenwashing.

The Crying Indian Ad, H&M’s Conscious Collection and VW’s clean diesel vehicles all showcase different facets of this greenwashing phenomenon. Whether it is used to make the consumer take on responsibility for a problem they didn’t cause and cannot solve, persuading them to believe that an irrational idea is possible, or just cynically abusing a consumer’s trust in a brand — greenwashing is alive, well, and a growing issue. 

Next, we explore how to protect oneself from these tactics and distinguish trustworthy products and companies from the greenwashing type. Stay tuned. Stay green. Stay on alert!