Hanging out the Green Washing

Conscious consumerism in a world of Greenwashing


By Alice Baxter


Illustration by Stefanie Burkmann

In an age of Meat-free Mondays and Blue Planet, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a term that’s been on everybody's lips.

CSR refers to a company’s ethical behaviour and the responsibility they hold over protecting our planet and our people. The term CSR has been around the block for many years now but a combination of a dire need to focus on climate change, and the simultaneous depletion of our planet’s natural resources has lead to an increased concern over where our products come from and the impact they have on the world. Consumers are smart these days, they can tell their organic from their free range and their vegan from their cruelty free but often corporate businesses are smarter, they recognise the businesses benefits of being an anthropologic, altruistic brand. This has lead to many companies adopting more ethical behaviours, or claiming to...

Companies can drive sales using positive CSR examples. Substantiated ethical claims not only create a positive perception of your company, but can help differentiate you from others, creating competitive advantage. Businesses like Lush and Innocent Smoothies capitalise off the promise that their products are good for you whilst being good for the planet (yet still mass produce plastic bottles for their products). Whilst companies like McDonalds and Starbucks have banned plastic straws to show that they are aware of the devil that is single-use plastic (but continue to use plastic cups and cutlery).

There will always be a limit to the financial gain CSR activity will bring to companies, and as a conscious consumer it is important to be aware of how companies may try to side-step this issue.

In 2018, Volkswagen AG had to pay a $1.2 billion fine after being caught tricking emission tests in order to claim their cars produced ‘clean diesel’. Both Walmart and Amazon have settled lawsuits after illegally selling plastic products, which were falsely labelled as biodegradable. Millions of consumers, probably including yourself, are fooled by these false claims every day and it’s not because you’re stupid, it’s because you’ve been greenwashed.

Greenwashed? I hear you ask… To ‘greenwash’ is “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is."

Greenwashing can be defined as unsubstantiated ethical or environmental claims, and it’s on the rise. It’s easy to imagine from a marketing perspective why companies might want to exaggerate the environmental performance of their products, the reduction of the use of plastics, or in the case of Iceland, palm oil.

When Iceland released (or attempted to release) their palm oil-centric advert to UK TV screens, it received mixed opinions. The advert has been imprinted on the brains of the country after its high circulation on social media - accompanied by comments disgust, shock reacts and petitions to have the advert released on screens. However some were more sceptical of the utilitarian aspect of the ad. Could it be that Iceland were greenwashing themselves?

Shockingly it turns out that despite their bold anti-palm stance, Iceland were unable to keep their full promise and instead removed their branding from many of their products containing palm oil rather than the palm oil itself. Sneaky…

This is where the consumer must dig a little deeper. 

Iceland committed to reducing their use of palm oil, replacing it with other plant oils such as soybean or rapeseed, but when we looked at the statistics, could this be worse than palm oil?

According to these figures (provided by the Guardian), palm oil is currently more sustainable than both alternatives. The yield of palm oil is far greater, meaning land use is much lower. If you swapped from palm oil to soya oil for instance, hectares of land use would increase by more than twelve times for an equivalent amount of oil, an energy needed by almost six times.

As an environmentally conscious consumer myself, I pride myself in favouring products that can convince me they are helping out in some way. Take for example a product that claims it will plant a tree for every sale: In 2014 Pornhub (yes, Pornhub!) endeavoured to plant a tree for every 100 videos watched, a technique used by many corporations as a clever marketing technique, ‘helping’ to counteract deforestation. To me this sounded great, the planet needs trees and the people need porn!

But once we began looking into Porn Hub’s claims further, a more complex reality lay beneath. The eradication of an incredibly diverse forest with a finely-tuned ecosystem cannot be reversed by simply planting a mass of trees in its place. On average it takes 65 years for a tropical forest to reach a pinnacle of diversity. One of the most common species to be replanted is Eucalyptus, often chosen because of its low cost and fast growth. But it requires a lot of water, which can drain water supplies from native crops and communities.

So there it is - food for thought in turning our minds to a more conscious way of consuming. Next time you see a glossy green campaign, keep your wits about you and dig a little deeper! But let’s be honest, when you dig deep enough you’re always able to hang out the dirty washing.

Photos by
Stefanie Berkmann
Words by
Alice Baxter

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