Tuesday, June 25, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

What is greenwashing?

  • Greenwashing deceives consumers about a product’s eco-friendliness
  • It makes informed choices and supporting sustainable businesses difficult
Update : 22 May 2024, 04:03 PM

Products claiming to be “sustainable,” “carbon-neutral” or “plastic-free” are increasingly visible on supermarket shelves.

And as many of us are increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of our consumer behavior: from the climate-heating emissions involved in manufacturing, to the waste and pollution produced once items are thrown away, such labels can be tempting.

In fact, according to a survey of consumers in 16 countries around the world, almost halfof people prefer buying products with an environmental label. But the same study also revealed only 3% would always be able to spot false green claims. That is where greenwashing comes into the picture.

What does the term greenwashing mean?

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic used to make a product or service appear better for the environment than it is. Energy companies, banks, retailers and even governments have been accused of it.

Although there is no internationally agreed legal definition, it generally involves presenting environmental claims that are either overstated, misleading or simply untrue.

As Maria Soxbo, Swedish sustainability lecturer and author, put it in a 2023 TED Talk: “Greenwashing is what happens when sustainability marketing goes wrong, when the message is turned against us instead of helping us to make those good, conscious choices.”

The aim is to convince eco-minded investors and consumers to buy or support what is being sold. And it is lucrative. Most consumerssay they are willing to pay more for “sustainable” products and companies making green claims are celebrating disproportionate market growth, according to a joint study from consultancy firms McKinsey and NielsenIQ.

How can you spot greenwashing?

Greenwashing can take many different forms, some more obvious than others. It could be a tech company claiming to be on track to reduce emissions to net zero, while having no credible plan in place. Or a shampoo using deliberately vague language that has no standard definition, like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.”

Sometimes it involves emphasizing one feature of a product without providing context on the bigger picture. That could be something like a “green” dress that uses 20% recycled material but is produced by a fast fashion brand in a high-emitting factory polluting the air and local waterways. Or a claim that is technically true but irrelevant, like an aerosol spray boasting it’s free of a chemical that’s illegal for all similar products to contain.

Environmental groups also say we should keep a critical eye on companies and products touting “carbon offsetting” to balance their climate impact. Many such schemes have been proven worthless and a distraction from the urgent task of cutting emissions at the source.

Why does greenwashing matter?

To limit the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, scientists say we need to cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. 

Greenwashing is seen as an obstacle to this as it enables companies and other entities to continue business as usual — and potentially even boost profits — without reducing their climate impact in any meaningful way. According to the UN, greenwashing diverts attention away from concrete solutions and undermines public trust in credible climate action.

Greenwashing is widespread and growing. A 2021 European Union assessment of green claims made by businesses in sectors such as garments, cosmetics and household equipment found there was reason to believe 42% were false or deceptive. And in 2023, there was a70% jump in greenwashing incidents among the banking and finance sector, according to research from Zurich-based research firm RepRisk. 

What is being done about misleading green claims?

But climate litigation involving greenwashing is also gaining pace, according to the London-based Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, with a minimum of 20 cases filed before courts in the US, Australia, France and the Netherlands in recent years.

And claimants are chalking up victories. Last month, a Dutch court ruled that airline KLM’s “Fly Responsibly” campaign was misleading customers, given that air travel is a major contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that are heating the atmosphere. Fossil Free, the environmental group who filed the case, hailed it “a historic victory over greenwashing by big polluters.”

Advertising regulators are also cracking down. In the UK, advertisements in which Ryanair declared itself Europe’s lowest-emission airline and Lipton Ice Tea claimed its bottles were “100% recycled” were both judged misleading and banned.

The EU is also cracking down on greenwashing. This year, the European Parliament voted in favor of banning products claiming to be “climate-neutral,” “biodegradable,” “eco,” or “natural” without certified proof, as well as goods making unprovable durability boasts or claiming to be repairable when they are not.

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