Greenwashing

“These days, green is the new black.” – stopgreenwash.org

As a community concerned with the current state of nature, we pagans are very likely to make at least some effort to find ways of reducing our environmental impact[*].  Like many other people[**], we probably look for indications that the products we buy are as environmentally friendly as possible; we’ll prefer products and services that present themselves as ‘green’.  We like to believe that we’re doing our part to help keep Earth’s environment as supportive of human life as it has been so far.

As environmental concerns increase around the world, many companies and corporations, big and small, are genuinely taking every opportunity to improve their business practices and lessen their environmental impact.  And others are taking every opportunity to sell more products through a specific type of marketing opportunism that’s described concisely as ‘greenwashing’.

(See, it’s like whitewashing, but green.)

Greenwashing is when a company deliberately misrepresents its practices or products to make them look greener than they are, and thereby attract people by exploiting their legitimate concerns about the environment.

You might look at Toyota, whose advert for the Prius hybrid car was criticised for stating that the vehicle produced one tonne less CO2 per year.  But less than what?  Regulators ruled that the comparison was flawed and that figures were in any case based on the sort of journeys made by US drivers, not British ones.  (Cars generally perform better – and therefore pollute less – when used for long journeys than for shorter ones.  US road journeys tend to be longer on average than those in the UK.)

Or Shell, who produced an appealing ad showing nasty industrial chimneys releasing flowers into the air rather than carbony grime.  The accompanying claim was that they ‘use waste CO2 to grow flowers’.  Which, in fairness, they do: a massive 0.325% of their waste CO2, in fact.  The Advertising Standards Authority laid a spot of smackdown on them, reasoning that 0.325% might as well be sod all, really.  Yes, the basic claim was true – but the ad implied that a far greater volume of reclaimed CO2 was used.

But it’s important that we don’t become too cynical.  Yes, companies exist to make money; advertising is a way for them to do that.  So it’s in their interest to make themselves seem as appealing as possible, and that might well include trumpeting their environmental attributes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that all such claims are Totally Bogus Dude.  Some firms reason that the best way to appear environmentally conscious is to be environmentally conscious.

A good example might be Marks & Spencers’ “Plan A” campaign – “Because There Is No Plan B.  M&S and the Co-op have been rated amongst the best-performing supermarket chains in terms of environmental and social responsibility.  Cakes all round.

Or British Telecom, cited by Paul Smith in the Huffington Post as “the leader when it comes to eco-friendly companies in the UK”.  BT’s carbon target, he says, is an emissions reduction of 80% by 2016, and the company is developing remote and flexible working opportunities to minimise the need for staff to travel.

So.  There’s good, and there’s not so good.  And then there’s just weird.  The aforementioned ASA also ripped into Ryanair for a political advert condemning Gordon Brown for something or other, which included the claim that aviation is responsible for “only 2%” of emissions.  The ASA slapped Ryanair on the wrist and pointed out that in fact, while the global figure for aviation is 2%, aviation was responsible for 5.5% of emissions in the UK.  This seems peculiar, since aviation is a global industry, and in any case we have only the one atmosphere.

Or McDonald’s restaurants changing their logos in Europe to green and yellow rather than red and yellow, to convey their deep concern for the environment – despite being a fundamentally cow-based enterprise.

Still, the point is that greenwashing is still on the rise, though advertising regulators are starting to get snarly about it, and the general public is smart enough to take the claims with a pinch of salt anyway.  Look out for vague claims; question what they’re actually telling you.  ‘Natural’ is a great word for advertisers to use, because it fills us with comfy feelings of loveliness, but could technically be used to cover absolutely everything.  If you’re pedantic enough, you could argue that an airliner – being a product of human ingenuity and effort – is as natural as a spider’s web or a beaver dam.  You’d need to be pretty damn sneaky for that one, but you take my point.

Look for evidence of what the company’s claiming.  Statistical claims, if they’re to be credible, should carry a reference to supporting data.  We can’t all be statisticians, but examine comparisons (“we’re greener than…”) to see if they’re limited to a narrow category, or are based on a tiny data sample.

It’s something to be aware of while you’re working out which firms deserve your gleaming riches.  Every company would benefit from increased greenery and many of them want to convince you of their environmental benevolence.  But it’s worth holding on to a flicker of hope: sometimes they can actually back up their claims.

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* If you’re not pagan, please don’t write in to complain just yet: saying that we are concerned with these things isn’t the same as saying that you’re not.

** See?

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