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True purpose in the era of ‘greenwashing’

Natalie Sherman

It’s widely understood that the future of our planet is in great danger. Many would argue that climate change is the greatest emergency facing both our generation and generations to come. While we all have a role to play in helping to turn the tide some organisations are greenwashing.


Moving to protect the world:

As more of us look to take steps to protect our world, companies across all sectors are taking the opportunity to step up their game. Firms are implementing real changes to the way they operate, including:

  • How they source raw materials.
  • Improving their manufacturing processes,
  • Improving how they recycle their waste.

In recent years, many businesses have made big strides forward on this front. Movements such as B Corp have been vital to raising environmental standards globally.

From a commercial perspective, it makes a lot of sense to operate ethically. The ethical consumer spending and finance market in the UK has now broken through the £100bn mark for the first time. It shows big growth in sectors like eco-travel and transport, green electricity and energy-efficient appliances. It’s clear that putting the planet at the heart of your business’ purpose has never been more timely.

Yet, it might not all be as it seems on the eco-front. Our social media timelines may be filled to the brim with brands celebrating their latest ethical achievements. It certainly pays to dig deeper into the growing trend: greenwashing.


What does ‘greenwashing’ mean?

Greenwashing is the act of amplifying and marketing a brand’s environmental stance, without being able to necessarily back up the impact with hard, quantifiable data.

It’s the art of talking a big game when, in reality, it is little more than empty words. This could include the use of nature-led visuals and tapping into the current zeitgeist for planet-friendly products.

Greenwashing is, at heart, a commercially-driven PR tactic to boost sales or cut through into new markets. It’s not a new term, it’s been around since the 1980s. But it is being more keenly noticed today because we live in a time when consumers expect brands to be transparent and act with integrity.

"The last few years may well go down in history as the golden age of greenwashing, says Greenpeace."

How to spot greenwashing:

It’s not always easy to discern what is fact or fiction when it comes to a company’s big environmental claims. It could be the over-use of buzzwords like ‘chemical-free’ and ‘natural’.

It may also be what Greenpeace calls “redundant claims”. When a claim isn’t needed, such as a company advertising a product as vegan or plant-based when it naturally would be anyway.

Or it might be making grand carbon offsetting announcements to compensate for pollution. This is something that Royal Dutch Shell has been heavily criticised for. The oil company’s ‘Drive CO2 Neutral’ campaign, running in the UK and Netherlands, encourages customers buying petrol or diesel to pay an extra fee. This extra fee is used to fund carbon-offsetting projects like tree planting, but this has been labelled as greenwashing by the Netherlands’ advertising watchdog.

Greenwashing isn’t always easy to spot, and it’s certainly not easy to stop. But thanks to invaluable resources including Ethical Consumer and influential voices on social media like the Conscious Fashion Collective and Eco-Age’s Livia Firth raising awareness for ethical over-claims. Today’s audiences are more aware of greenwashing than ever before.

Whether it’s fashion brands like H&M and Nike continuing to increase greenhouse gas emissions despite environmental scores seemingly suggesting progress. Or beer company BrewDog’s ESG pledge to plant “the biggest ever” forest in Scotland. Which caused great controversy at a time, as the brand is under intense scrutiny to combat claims of having a toxic workplace culture. It’s clear that we need to delve deeper to uncover the truth when it comes to big environmental claims.


Trust in a “golden age of greenwash”:

The last few years may well go down in history as the golden age of greenwashing, says Greenpeace. During times of huge global uncertainty, many big businesses have taken the opportunity to distract audiences with grandiose claims and big promises.

Yet while greenwashing may be more prevalent than ever before, so is social media. The incredible power that we all have, right at our fingertips, could be used to publicly call companies out and bring about real change.

The timing has never been better for genuine, purpose-driven brands to rise to the forefront, operating with genuine intent and a desire to change the world in small, positive ways. The purpose-driven movement is gaining momentum, in large part as a direct response to, and battle against, the upsurge in corporate greenwashing that’s been witnessed in recent years.

As eyes continue to be opened to the dire emergency surrounding our planet, it pays to do your own research. Don’t just accept big brand claims at face value.  Seek to support businesses that are operating with integrity and authenticity led by a true, future-focused purpose.

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