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The term Greenwashing was reportedly first used by an American environmentalist and researcher called Jay Westerveld. In 1986 he visited a beach resort in Samoa and was dismayed by them claiming that their innovative adoption of a reusable towel service was a way to save the environment. It was a classic overclaim – particularly since the resort was ambitiously expanding right next door in a highly non-environmentally-friendly way.
Whether mildly deceptive or intentionally manipulative, the term has now spawned many different variations (see Greenwashing Guide).
Greenwashing is now rife. Brands use words to mislead, but also visuals and graphics. Green claims are often deceptively vague (and therefore unprovable). Many are overstatements or exaggerations about how environmentally-friendly the product, company or service is. Some simply leave out or mask important information, using selective transparency and making the claim sound far better than it is.
One tactic is to use pseudo-scientific terms such as Eco or Bio – they sound impressive, but in many cases are essentially meaningless. Another is a form of symbolic corporate environmentalism, offering up seemingly impressive statistics, but often taken out of context. For example, Company X announces a $300 million investment in ‘natural ecosystems’ as part of a strategy to take action against climate change, whilst simultaneously investing $25 billion in non-renewable oil and gas energy sources.
With increased consumer scrutiny, more and more businesses are now being exposed for greenwashing. Sometimes, it is simply a case of perfectly good products that genuinely do help society or the planet using naïve or lazy claims. At its worst though, there are bad products or brands (those directly involved with fossil fuels or deforestation) that use marketing claims to mislead and to make their product look acceptable.
In 2022, the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) in the UK introduced its Green Claims Code to help combat greenwashing. To avoid investigation, companies must be able to answer Yes to a series of questions including:
Are your claims clear and unambiguous?
Do they only make fair and meaningful comparisons?
Have you substantiated your claims (see 6.3)?
For more details, visit: www.greenclaims.campaign.gov.uk
The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) have also published new rules and guidance around misleading environmental advertising. For more details visit: www.asa.org.uk/general/climate-change-and-environmental-claims.html
Taken from The Sustainable Business Book