Greenwashing: Consigning Conscience to Consumers

Going green is no longer a cool thing to do. It has become a necessity, may it be for an individual or a group. And what excellent public relations and marketing tools they make in addition to keeping the conscience buffed and spotless.

Despite being colour blind, I do get green with envy when some are morally superior to me, those supposedly with a higher level of conscience. But I am hardly intimidated by all those moral posturings in social media, especially so when it has permeated even the marketing campaigns aimed at nervous consumers who better buy products that will not punch another hole at the ozone layers.

Sitting on the saddle, high moral ground, hollering down at the unwashed mass, it has somewhat become duty bound for social media users especially to post feel-good, conscience-cleansing preaching statements which, more often than not, are aimed at some hostile person of their choosing or groups which would not bother noticing them anyway.

Perched on top of the financial terrain, the big businesses, the behemoths of the corporate world are not going to be left out in reaching out and preaching about. Usually riding on the back of political leaders, launching campaigns gleefully, and taking advantage of the thirst for the limelight by their leaders: going green is great for everyone. The businesses, the VIPs, and the media, heck it can be profitable too. Greenback now has a different meaning.

That,s because in the early days “green” used to be associated with nature; with vegetables and the colour of deposits when you have too much of, say, Kale; and, for fans of comic books, the Incredible Hulk. Now, going green is the thing, a hip thing to do, it gels with the woke crowd.

Tax Exemption

So much so that, picking up from celebrities and their favourite causes, corporations have been pushing forward their most charitable grins out there. Sure, one such motivation is the tax exemption thing going on for the involvement in good causes. After ruminations these corporates, possibly running out of emotional attachment to orphanages and old folks home, collectively decided that green is in.

What bugs many, or at least, this author and the author of this excellent op-ed is the sincerity vs. the hypocrisy aspect. The writer spoke at length of the disgust in what’s happening in the country and not denying the fact that it’s a global issue – corporate Greenwashing – which sits on a thin line between sincere John Lennon-sh wish for a better world and pandering to the mass.

But Greenwashing goes beyond the ordinary citizen passionate display of agitation (PDA?) by placard carrying and sending messages – the values must be incorporated into the products and services – it goes with the brand. They must be associated with being environmentally friendly or face the inevitable threat of being rejected by hunchback youths through their TikToks or risk being assaulted by parents with reusable grocery bags.

Let’s look back at what Greenwashing exactly means. One definition is that Greenwashing is essentially when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimising their environmental impact.

Simply put for consumers, highlighting claims that are pure marketing greenwashing

“It’s a deceitful advertising method to gain favour with consumers who choose to support businesses that care about bettering the planet,” the article noted.

“Greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against environmental issues, like climate change, plastic ocean pollution, air pollution and global species extinctions.”

This brings us to Greenwashing, a term coined by an investment banker (who else?) Duncan Austin who argues that the sustainable business community’s climate rhetoric sounds great and is well-intended – but that it is not having a meaningful impact on climate change outcomes. But are wishes and good intents are not enough?

Conscience, Consumers, Marketing, Greenwashing

In fact, the intention with pretension can invite contention. Therein lies the “sincerity” aspect. Are they for real?

Take this case for instance, where the product is marketed as being a disposable nappy and the nappy disposal bags as ‘100% biodegradable’. “In fact, the nappy was found to contain plastic components incapable of being broken down by the biological activity of living organisms. The Federal Court of Australia then declared that the company had breached, imposed an injunction preventing the company from engaging in similar conduct in the future”.  You can read more at that link.

That’s just one. How about eleven brands that got called out for Greenwashing last year? In the same article, you can find the most disastrous attempt by Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), a Singapore-based non-profit backed by big oil and chemical companies such as Shell, ExxonMobil, and Dow that launched in 2019 that claimed to have spent USD1.5 billion on cleaning up plastic waste in developing countries. “But an investigation by Reuters in January highlighted not only the failure of one of the Alliance’s flagship projects to clean up the Ganges river in India, but the fact that these companies are planning to dramatically ramp up plastic production, which will fuel the plastic pollution crisis,” the article noted. Aiyayo, Samy!

Fraudulent

In fact, some initiatives are downright fraudulent, like this paper bottle from South Korea, which had plastic inside. How about the mighty Adidas, of all brands, which was sued for claiming in its advertisement that its shoe was “50% recycled” – a blatant Greenwashing says the French Advertising Ethics Jury (a watchdog group affiliated with France’s advertising watchdog group, AARP – one of the founding members of European Advertising Standards agency) which found:- “…this logo, which evokes the planet Earth, suggests that the company is pursuing to put an end to plastic waste, a message reinforced by the visual which shows a basketball crushing a plastic bottle”.

In reality, AEJ noted “at the end of its life, a discarded [sneaker] will add to the mass of non-recycled plastic waste and, in all likelihood, fuel resulting pollution,” adding that it cannot, therefore, be claimed that the marketing of these shoes would constitute a means of putting an end to plastic waste.

It is for this disaster alone that TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency, came up with Six Sins of Greenwashing (full study here) which I can help to define in summary:-

Sin of the Hidden Trade-off: committed by suggesting a product is green based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues;

Sin of No Proof: committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification;

Sin of Vagueness: committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer;

Sin of Irrelevance: committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but which is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products;

Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole;

Sin of Fibbing: the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false.

I would add this, which I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, sin of moral posturing – that these corporations make turd-loads of money, and are not going to feel guilty about any little misdemeanours they might commit – because they have shifted the burden onto you, us, the consumers. – New Malaysia Herald

About the writer: Rakesh Kumar is a writer, scriptwriter, and a film aficionado, who is four years and seven months clean and sober. And counting

The points expressed in this article are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the New Malaysia Herald.

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