Credit: Kiki Chan

Greenwashing: What it is and how to avoid it

By Frances Chorley

Companies pretend to be green to gain your custom; how to recognise this and be the most sustainable consumer you can be. 

In 2018, Starbucks introduced the “sippable” lid, which, with its new mouthpiece, promised to make plastic straws a thing of the past. What seemed to be a triumph of environmentalism was found to use more plastic than the precious combination of dome and straw. This is an example of greenwashing – a PR technique which cultivates a facade of sustainability, and grants brands access to a market for ethical business, now valued at over £122 billion.

In an increasingly eco-conscious culture, this green sheen both protects harmful business models from scrutiny, and undermines those that are genuinely ethical. A 2021 Statista survey found 50% of consumers to be distrusting of all green claims made by clothing companies. Facing the 2050 goal of net-zero, sustainable choices are increasingly important, but frustratingly, increasingly difficult to make; 2023 alone saw a 35% increase in misleading environmental claims. Although designed for deception, greenwashing has symptoms and recurrent marketing strategies which suggest something is awry. But what are these symptoms? How might we recognise them? What steps can we as individuals take towards a greener future?

Vague claims and unsubstantiated statements

We encounter these regularly – broad claims along the lines of “good for the planet” and “sustainably produced”. Companies that make these claims rarely detail exactly what makes their product ecologically sound, and their slogans often fall flat when interrogated. In a 2021 campaign, Tesco lauded their new Plant Chef burger as being “good for your pocket and even better for the planet”. The Advertising Standards Agency rapidly shut this campaign down, finding the supermarket unable to substantiate the claim that their vegetarian patty was any more sustainable than its beef equivalent. Oat milk brand Oatly has faced similar issues, proclaiming in a TV advert to generate “73% less CO2 vs. milk, calculated from grower to grocer”. Awkwardly, this turned out to be a false comparison, ringing true only for a singular Oatly product: the Barista Milk. 

‘Carbon off-setting’

Carbon off-setting often crops up within the transport sector, which alone produces around a third of global CO2 emissions. Here, companies participate in schemes that aim to remove an equivalent mass of carbon from the atmosphere to that released, making them “carbon-neutral”. In 2023, EasyJet offered a voluntary scheme by which customers could pay to have the emissions of their flight reabsorbed. Similarly, Heathrow Airport has vowed to fund forest-planting programmes, hoping to offset all airport infrastructure emissions. Seems fair, right? Greenpeace would have to disagree. According to the pressure group, it would take up to 20 years for a newly planted tree to absorb the promised volume of CO2. Instead of inciting the much needed change required of the travel industry, promises of carbon-offsetting allocate responsibility to the individual rather than the corporation, and justify an unsustainable mode of transit.

Token gestures

An emphasis on a select few “green” features can often allow companies to distract from more pressing issues. Good On You, a website dedicated to rating the sustainability of popular fashion brands, points out that clothing companies will often use recyclable packaging as a front for an inherently wasteful business model, with the equivalent of one rubbish truck’s worth of textiles arriving at landfills every second. Zara’s sustainability campaign “Join Life” exemplifies this effect. The website touts 100% reliance on renewable energy, a zero-waste policy, and the elimination of single-use plastic from labels and packaging. These promises pale somewhat in light of Zara’s disturbingly rapid production process, generating over 450 million garments and 24 trend-led collections every year. In light of these stats, compostable plastic bags hardly seem adequate compensation.

What can we do?

It’s hard to know where to start in the fight against greenwashing. There are the obvious options – second-hand shopping, or the reinvigoration of worn-out belongings. However, when these options fall through, websites like The Good Shopping Guide, Ethical Consumer, and Good on You are great. Considering issues like human rights, animal welfare, CO2 emissions and, critically for students, price, these databases produce sustainability ratings for everything from banks to supermarkets, allowing consumers to make informed choices and fair comparisons. Faced with the enormity of the climate crisis, our individual decisions can seem ineffectual, minute rallies against a much bigger problem. But greenwashing is truly dangerous, and any action that we can take against it is a step in the right direction.


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