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Consumers Demand Sustainability, But Some Brands Can’t Stop Greenwashing

If consumers want the brands they buy from to keep their supply chains sustainable and environmentally friendly, they will have to wise up to greenwashing. Greenwashing, sometimes called ‘green sheen,’ is a form of insincere advertising in which companies use false eco-friendly claims to market their products.

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Today’s consumers are very aware of the impact their purchasing choices have on the natural world, and they have been for some time. As far back as 2016, three in four Americans believed the country should ‘do whatever it takes to protect the environment’, per data from Pew Research. According to research from Gallup, the percentage of Americans who believe environmental protection should be prioritized ahead of economic growth has not dipped below 50% in the last seven years.

That has political consequences, of course, especially given the unhelpful framing of that survey question. It implies you can’t have both growth and environmental protection, when many Americans remain unaware of the plentiful opportunities for free-market environmentalism, marrying economic growth with green interests.

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Americans are demanding that companies make their products in a way that does not harm the planet. That’s a good thing because it organically pushes the market towards more sustainable practices. Unfortunately, though, there will always be some who are more interested in cutting corners than doing the right thing, even if it might mean deceiving their customers in the process. Some brands virtue-signal loudly about their green credentials, but upon closer inspection, their claims do not always stack up. Enter greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a key issue in countless markets across the world. It misleads consumers and causes low levels of confidence in businesses’ environmental credentials. The packaging and marketing of consumer items, such as food and cosmetics, is often awash with dubious environmental claims. Even simple allegations of greenwashing are plentiful and can be immensely damaging to a brand.

Last year, Kohl’s and Walmart had to pay a combined $5.5 million penalty after they marketed a range of products as eco-friendly on the basis that they were made of bamboo. The Federal Trade Commission found they “were actually made of rayon and did not contain bamboo fibers,” making them much less green than claimed. Meanwhile, it turns out Hefty Recycling Bags are non-recyclable, with a class action lawsuit now alleging their misleading marketing ‘violated Florida law by materially misrepresenting that the…bags are suitable for recycling.’

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Brands virtue-signaling on their green credentials also risks over-simplifying complex environmental issues. For instance, various producers of disposable coffee pods are routinely accused of greenwashing based on the recyclability (or otherwise) of the pods themselves. But some research suggests using pods could reduce coffee drinkers’ environmental impact overall because they waste less electricity, water and coffee. Similarly, ‘palm oil free’ is becoming a go-to boast, but switching to other oils usually causes more deforestation, not less. Rarely can the multi-faceted environmental legacy of any product be neatly boiled down to an ad-friendly slogan, which means simplistic green advertising campaigns risk misrepresenting the truth, intentionally or otherwise.

It’s not all bad news. There are plenty of bright sparks embracing sustainability as an asset rather than an obstacle, especially in the startup sector. In fact, everywhere you look, there are reasons to be cheerful – the vast majority of brands seem able and willing to confront the fact that a veneer of sustainability is not enough, acknowledging that real investment in the future of the natural world is needed. 

Companies are better off being upfront with consumers about the environmental credentials of their products, rather than virtue-signaling with pictures of orangutans and hoping people don’t interrogate their claims too closely. There is no substitute for transparency. In the modern age, where allegations of corporate bigwigs trying to pull the wool over customers’ eyes can spread like wildfire online and cause irreparable brand damage, providing holistic information about supply chains’ effects on the planet is a must for every major brand. These days, environmental sustainability equals a sustainable customer base and business model.

That’s not to say stricter government regulation of environmental claims is the answer. As the coffee pod example shows, it is sometimes very difficult to ascertain whether a product really is more or less environmentally damaging than another. The free market, along with a strong rule of law, is the best arbiter of greenwashing. Consumers (and journalists) can be relied upon to unearth the truth and, if necessary, take the matter to court, as with Hefty Recycling Bags.

Consumers are more perceptive than some brands may assume, and they reward manufacturers who go out of their way to make a real difference in their supply chains.

They would be better off putting the environmental virtue-signaling aside and investing now in meaningful changes, rather than waiting until it becomes urgent because consumers realize they are being short-changed and abandon brands en masse. In the long run, greenwashing does not pay off.

Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624 

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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