When Brands Go Green with Envy: the Scourge of Greenwashing


Doesn’t it give a nice warm glow to see the words “environmentally friendly”? Isn’t it good to know that top-quality products can be developed using ecologically sympathetic practices? Doesn’t it put your mind at ease?

Don’t advertisers know it.

It’s true that we live in a time when green consumerism is reshaping mainstream industry and commerce. A new product has to be seen to conform to eco-friendly principles straight out the gate, or else that company’s marketing department is going to have a lot of explaining to do to its sales team. Increasingly, manufacturers care, no doubt about it – but more importantly right now, they need to look like they care.

Even Ferrari have bitten the bullet. From 2012, they claim, their fleet will use 40% less fuel  – thus reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by the same amount. It’s a telling sign that the most deluxe of deluxe supercar manufacturers is taking pains to add a dash of green to its trademark red. It also sets a technological precedence for the field, making competitors scramble for their blueprints.

However – exactly how much of a direct impact will this have? The math is damning. Ferrari churns out just 6,000 cars a year. Similarly, in 2005 Ford Motor Company launched their Escape Hybrid SUV – “a vehicle that can take you to the very places you’re helping to preserve”. How many do they aim to shift every year? No more than 20,000. Compare that with the 80,000 F-series trucks manufactured every month. It is also a moot point that prior to the Escape campaign, the US Environmental Protection Agency rated Ford as having the worst fleet-wide fuel economy of all automobile makers.

It’s called greenwashing – making a misleading claim that your product is environmentally friendly, when in truth you’re not being forthcoming with the negative implications, or you’re simply lying through your teeth.

Why would manufacturers want to risk the shame of discovery and public condemnation? Every year brings a new reason. Profits, obviously – everyone wants a piece of that sexy “Ëœfeel good’ factor to attract new fans and chase away critics in the media and in regulatory services. It’s terrific PR, and so a green-tinted company is more attractive to potential investors and staff alike, and will enjoy a reputation for building towards the future – everybody’s future.

How often does greenwashing happen? According to marketing group Terrachoice – all the time. Last month they identified the six most common “ËœSins’ of greenwashing:

1. THE HIDDEN TRADE-OFF – 0.5% of a company’s car production becoming environmentally friendly, yet enjoying all of the hype, for example.

2. NO PROOF – slogans that entirely lack The Science Bit.

3. VAGUENESS – because the less concrete a claim is, the harder it is to dispute.

4. IRRELEVANCE – amazingly, some products are still promoted as “ËœCFC-free’, which nowadays is simply saying “this product is not illegal”.

– being 100% liberal with the truth. An imaginary example: “ËœNo trees were damaged for our new 50,000-hectare resort deep in the Amazon basin”.

– is a product fundamentally eco-hostile, no matter what spin is put on it? Then it belongs in this category.

It’s outrageous, and yet it happens. How do they get away with it, time after time? There are two major windows of opportunity for the wannabe greenwasher:

Jargon. A report released by green technology watchdog SustainIT pointed towards consumer confusion over terminology – nearly half those surveyed didn’t know how carbon offsetting actually works, for example. Jargon and buzzwords are designed to impress, not necessarily inform.

Ambiguity. There are no universally recognised standards yet. Contenders to this throne include Green Seal and Green Standards but here at the forefront of the ecoluxe movement there’s still a lack of uniformity. (The internationally recognised Fair Trade certification has an ecofriendly component, but is primarily concerned with protecting the rights of producers and workers).

Selling a product with ten different badges of green standards accreditation is another way to impress and confuse consumers. After all, exactly what criteria must be met for a company to be awarded each seal of eco-excellence? If this isn’t immediately clear to the average consumer, how many “sins” does this open the way for?

– Image: Velo_City

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.