By Solmaz Salehi
Cambridge Dictionary describes greenwashing as “behaviours or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
Environmentalist Jay Westerveld created the term in 1986. At the time, the media was flooded with companies advertising themselves as environmentally conscious. In the 1990s, the growing awareness of environmental issues made it so companies’ environmental records had more influence over consumers.
As concern about climate change has increased, companies have realized they can profit off environmental anxiety. In an interview with The Guardian, Jason Ballard, CEO of sustainable home improvement retailer TreeHouse, points out that it is a good thing that people are becoming more aware of their environmental impact, but greenwashing is “the dark side of very positive development.”
Giant water companies such as Nestlé spend millions of dollars on advertisements that try to convince consumers that their plastic water bottles are “good” for the planet. The company claims that its use of plant-based plastics is less damaging for the environment. In reality, bioplastics are plastic made from bio-based polymers that act like normal plastics. They often need certain conditions such as oxygen and sunlight to break down. However, these conditions are not available in the ocean. Since they take the same amount of effort, energy, and chemicals to be created, they cannot be considered good for the environment. Bioplastics contain the same amount of petrochemicals as regular plastic. Only 30% of the plastic bottles end up getting recycled, creating millions of tons of waste that ends up in oceans every year.
In 2018, Starbucks partnered with Nestlé in order to expand its packaged goods. When the trend of condemning plastic straws began, Starbucks immediately provided their customers with a sippy cup alternative. Starbucks’ attempt to reduce plastic straws is a cop-out since it is an easy action for the company to take in order to come off as more environmentally conscious to their customers. In reality, plastic straws are only 0.03% of total plastic waste. Actions like the initiative to cut down on plastic straws and providing discounts on drinks if you are using reusable cups distract from Starbucks’ bigger environmental impact such as partnering with Nestle, an environmentally controversial company.
Most of the time greenwashing is used as a marketing and PR effort by companies to mislead their customers. Because of the consumer’s lack of knowledge about what is sustainable and what isn’t, companies do minimal work. Dawson student, Romy Shoam, suggests that “the main thing to look out for in clothing/accessory companies that claim to be eco-friendly or have one of those “conscious” collections is their transparency. Can they tell you exactly what they made their products out of? Or where they made them?” For consumers, the best way to avoid getting greenwashed is to be educated about who is truly green and who is just trying to make more money since “Often times a company that’s greenwashing their product won’t divulge all that information and will cover it up with minimalist, eco-friendly-style advertising,” explains Romy. Just because a label says it is made with sustainable products, “made with recycled plastic”, or “all-natural” does not mean the product automatically qualifies as a better alternative.