The importance of consumer vigilance in a greenwashed world, and how to tackle it.
With our capitalist economy and its profit-maximising corporations at the core of the acceleration of our climate crisis, corporations’ cooperation is imperative in mitigating this emergency. As consumers, we can contribute to fighting the climate crisis through the power we can exert over corporations in the form of our consumption behaviour. How can we best use this power?
Corporations’ impact on our planet is not clear-cut, in part due to the multi-faceted nature of our climate crisis, and the various lenses through which we can view sustainability. There is no clear-cut or single legal definition for ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ or ‘environmentally-friendly’. This has meant that consumers are left to determine the legitimacy of corporations’ environmental claims themselves and, as consumers demand more sustainable goods, corporations increasingly exaggerate their environmental credentials to win customers over. This phenomenon is known as greenwashing. Greenwashing poses a real challenge to consumers: how do we distinguish between a company actively reducing its damaging imprint on the planet, and one which does this on the surface level to keep its share price climbing?
Greenwashing is nothing new; it was first coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who pegged it to hotels that asked guests to reuse towels in order to ‘save the environment’ but were really using it as a cost-saving measure. One early example of greenwashing occurred by Chevron in the 1980s, during which the oil giant ran an advertising campaign praising its environmental virtues called People Do, whilst deliberately violating US clean air and water acts, and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.
Greenwashing poses a real challenge to consumers: how do we distinguish between a company actively reducing its damaging imprint on the planet, and one which does this on the surface level to keep its share price climbing?
Greenwashing appears almost everywhere today, across all industries. On the high-street, labels such as ‘sustainably sourced’ and ‘recycled cotton’ are chucked around without further detail, explanation or evidence. In 2019, H&M came out with its ‘Conscious’ collection which claimed to use ‘100% organic’ cotton, Tencel and recycled polyester, but with no explanation for how these materials were better for the environment. The ‘100% organic cotton’ t-shirts being sold in this collection in fact take 2700 litres of water to make, each. In the tech world, Apple, who have now made more than two billion iPhones, state that ‘as [they] design, build and recycle [their] products, [they] feel a profound responsibility to protect the earth’. This seems to be rather an empty claim, given that Apple prioritises driving consumers to buy new products over prolonging the life of existing products, and given the difficulty of recycling its lithium-ion batteries, which are classed as hazardous waste.
Greenwashing extends to industries too. Let’s compare the environmentally-hailed electric vehicle market with the climate-degrading oil industry. Electric vehicles come with their own environmental complications; electric cars too use lithium-ion batteries, which, in addition to the waste issue, comprise of elements which only exist beneath the surface of the Earth, and their extraction depends on highly-polluting mining activities.
The US oil titan Occidental Petroleum has recently claimed that it reduces more greenhouse gas emissions than electric vehicle manufacturers do. Occidental takes the equivalent of about 4 million cars off the road annually through carbon sequestration, the pumping back of CO2 underground, which exceeds Tesla’s estimated US emissions reduction of ~3.7 million tonnes to date, through consumers switching away from combustion engine vehicles. But even this claim needs to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. The 20 million tonnes of CO2 which Occidental annually injects back into the ground actually makes the extraction of more oil even easier for the company. The impact of Occidental’s carbon sequestration should be taken into consideration, but it would again appear that capitalist profit-maximisation continues to reign above environmental- and social-consciousness.
If a company is truly concerned about its environmental footprint, it will make a point to share its sustainability journey on its website, including the challenges it has faced in meeting its sustainability goals.
Are there ways of simplifying how we measure sustainability? Corporates have tried to do so by evaluating responsible and sustainable investments on three pillars: environmental, social and governance (ESG). ESG investing has unsurprisingly exploded in recent years, and many rely on ESG rating agencies to tell them how sustainable a firm is, and is striving to be. However, even these external agencies are not vigilant enough, and often do not reflect the full truth. MSCI, one of the largest and most prevalent providers of investment data and analytics services, has repeatedly given Boohoo an AA rating – its second-highest ranking – placing it among the top 15% of its competitors based on ESG metrics. This was just weeks before Boohoo was exposed for using suppliers that paid workers less than the UK’s minimum wage.
So, amidst all this mess, what can be done? A few suggestions for detecting greenwashing are as follows: the more transparent a business is, the better, especially if backed up by facts and figures. If a company is truly concerned about its environmental footprint, it will make a point to share its sustainability journey on its website, including the challenges it has faced in meeting its sustainability goals. Companies which are ethical do not need to use certain buzzwords such as ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’, which are undefined and get tossed around all too often. Look for certifications; if a brand says its product is ‘cruelty free’, check whether this has been certified, for example from PETA. Look at the people on the management team – is sustainability a priority for them, as individuals? Whatever their approach, it is bound to trickle down through the company.
All of this can seem – and is – rather overwhelming. Verifying whether companies are living up to their sustainability claims should not be this difficult, and in fact should not be necessary at all. However, for now, greenwashing will continue to be an issue, and as a result, we need to remain vigilant. Structural inequality means that vigilance, however, is a privilege which unfortunately is not accessible to everyone. The inherent disparity in accessibility to sustainable consumption must be taken into consideration, and must be combatted if we are to combat greenwashing as a society.
Where vigilance is a possibility, this piece is not asking you to trawl through the sustainability reports of every company you consider buying from; this would be exhausting. But what I do hope this article has shown, is that no industry, company or external rating agency should be taken at face value. Amidst all the misleading claims flying around, it is important to challenge what we think we know. I ask that we, as consumers, make our own judgements on the validity of companies’ sustainability claims, inform ourselves on it as much as we see fit, and consume consciously in accordance with this. We can then consider the whole picture – a holistic approach to sustainability through a kaleidoscopic lens, which is not shaped by just one collection or product. Companies have been operating for too long without any accountability for their actions. While regulation is gradually cracking down on greenwashing, we can already provide this accountability ourselves as consumers, which is a pretty powerful tool.
Art by Oliver Walter