In this timely piece, Kate O’Riordan looks at the phenomenon of Greenwashing among large corporations and Green Capitalism.

In response to the detrimental impacts of climate change, Generation Z has spearheaded much of the global climate action movement, as seen in the Extinction Rebellion Movement and Greta Thunberg’s school strikes that sparked a global movement. These recent events furthered the rise of environmental consciousness and conscience in society, leading to a greater demand for sustainable practices and policies from governments and corporations to attempt to combat climate change’s harmful impact on our planet. This new eco-conscience in consumers created a new market for companies to target with greenwashing campaigns.

Greenwashing is the deceptive intentional marketing strategy that creates a false impression that a company is selling eco-friendly products, to appeal to the growing eco-consciousness of consumers. The term “washing” in this context implies the glazing over of the unethical and not so eco-friendly practices of a company to focus on one minute specific less harmful counteracting activity, that they do for the sake of the environment seemingly rather than profit. The aim of greenwashing is to cultivate a sustainable or eco-conscious brand image using vague buzzwords, such as recyclable, sustainable, organic, energy-efficient, biodegradable etc. 

Companies that use these phrases more often than not, do not have the most sustainable business practices and only see the rising eco-conscious and climate change movement as a new market to tap into to satiate the demand for more sustainable goods, as being eco-friendly is just another trend. Many companies try to distance themselves from their own detrimental environmental impact by engaging in such greenwashing tactics. Creating high levels of emissions, waste and unethical labour, many companies are a far cry from the sustainable image that they market. Fast fashion brands are the most notorious culprits in this marketing tactic, whilst contributing to 10% of global carbon emissions annually according to a 2019 World Bank report.

A flagrant example of greenwashing is, H&M’s line of clothing called their ‘Conscious Collection’, which claimed to use recycled polyester and organic cotton which weren’t certified. They also advertised that the clothing line had a ‘reduced impact’ on the environment, omitting any specific statistics. The retailer was called out on their vague language by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for providing ‘insufficient’ information about their sustainability claims. Furthermore, H&M is the second-largest fashion retailer in the world and has extremely unethical labour practices, making the word ‘conscious’ in their eco-collection, quite ironic to say the least. Operating sustainably under a fast fashion business model is nothing short of a colossal paradox. 

In falling down the rabbit hole of identifying examples of greenwashing, large multinational oil companies provide the most shocking cases of the phenomenon. The Shell group of petrochemical and energy companies is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to carbon emissions, emitting 70 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. On Twitter, Shell dared to post a Twitter poll asking; ‘What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?’ with the option of “offset your emissions, stop flying, buy an electric car, or choose renewable electricity.” 

This only demonstrates a shameless lack of self-awareness of the oil corporation that failed a carbon offset tree planting campaign and continues to profit from burning fossil fuels. The last option to ‘choose renewable energy’ is truly laughable, as renewable energy, the obvious choice, would be a serious profit deflator for Shell. Millions are spent annually on strategizing various campaigns to create the illusion of eco-consciousness, to announce piecemeal projects that promote sustainability and to release vague targets. 

It’s important to note that green capitalism and greenwashing are not synonymous concepts, as green capitalism involves the belief that economic growth and sustainability can coexist, using levers of the market to fix the damaged environment. Green capitalism is a win-win to many politicians and corporations as it enforces the appearance that a company cares about the environment whilst maintaining profits and achieving economic growth. This brand of capitalism is a relatively fluid concept that attempts to use fewer natural resources from the biosphere, which sounds appealing but is much different in practice than it is ideologically. There are many arguments in favour of this eco brand of capitalism, as it promotes investment in renewable energies, the creation of more eco-friendly technology and is seen as a step in the right direction towards a more sustainable future.

 However, the paradoxical nature of green capitalism is that corporations who monopolise on the sustainability movement view economic growth and expansion as an ultimate agenda rather than making greener choices and using less of the planet’s dwindling resources. Green capitalism is a myth and capitalism, the driver of industrialization, is the creator of much of the destruction to the planet so it seems illogical to deem a different brand of it as a solution. There is also an issue with the market contorting ecological problems so they fit into some specific sort of profitable framework whilst neglecting unprofitable areas, such as transport technologies and systems that could yield more sustainable progress for society and the planet.

Another rebuttal to green capitalism that is commonly used as a get out of jail free card, is the phrase: ‘there is no ethical consumption under capitalism’, which traditionally refers to labour and ethics in production and consumption, is still relevant to the debate on climate change. Firstly, it reduces the argument against greenwashing and the borderline false advertisement that attempts to manipulate consumers. It is impossible to live under a capitalist system without participating in it to some degree and a black and white view on consumption cannot achieve change. 

Moreover, the narrative of how to attain environmental sustainability to combat climate change is often one that attributes responsibility to individuals rather than large multinational corporations, environmental laws, and government policy that can enact much more substantial change rather than a campaign to turn off the tap when you brush your teeth. Ultimately, the frame of individual responsibility in response to climate change deflects accountability from companies, which is why we see a lot of pseudo-empowering language in various marketing campaigns. 

One central takeaway from the debate is that although we are somewhat powerless as individuals, we can be more mindful of our consumption choices while also remaining critical of greenwashing as a marketing technique. Consuming less is always optimal, yet the act is still necessary. Due to financial constraints, accessibility, and other barriers, sustainability can seem almost unfeasible at times. Starting small, reducing, reusing, repairing, recycling are the steps towards individual sustainability. The website Goodonyou.com has a robust ranking system for ethicality and sustainability of various companies and fashion brands and is a valuable resource to identify environmental impacts.