GOING GREEN | ​Demystifying Green Washing

by Andrew Ngozo


Demystifying Green Washing


In a fast-changing global climate, companies and individuals alike are striving for sustainable business practices, be it at the office or at home. More recently, a buzz word that has come to dominate many business conversations is ‘greenwashing’, a topic that often puzzles even the most well read and most experienced environmental practitioner and businessperson. One is then left to ask: What is this concept and why has it become prevalent lately, and, most of all, should one be taking to it or not? Let us consider the subject in depth.


According to the Greenwashing Index, simply put, ‘greenwashing’ is whitewashing, but with a green brush. The Index explains further: “It is greenwashing when a company or organisation spends more time and resources claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact.” Many readers will identify with the classic example of financial institutions that have committed considerable 

resources in bringing it to the public’s attention that they have ‘paperless banking’ or online banking.


In this respect, there are plenty of organisations across the world that claim to be ‘green’ companies. Some of them are guilty of the cardinal sin of claiming to do it when they should not even be doing it, says the Greenwashing Index. In the Index’s view, there is good and bad greenwashing and any company, and any individual, can ill afford to be found wanting in identifying the pros and cons of this concept. “In order to get the truth, if an individual sees a ‘green’ advert, then they must take a closer look at the company as a whole. Next, they must further explore whether that particular company reveals information about their sustainable business practices on the company website.” Key to this train of thought is that, while on the website, does one find a comprehensive environmental story with believable information that validates the claims in the advert? If not, then one should be very wary about the manner in which one proceeds, the Index advises.


One way of identifying greenwashing is simply to trust one’s human instincts to know if a company claiming to be ‘green’ is indeed a sustainable company or not. As odd as it may sound, the experts at the Greenwashing Index advise that, if you are an ‘environment’ fanatic, then ‘I know it when I see it’ should be the maxim that one lives by. For example, if one spots an advert, what is your gut feel? Does it ring true and is it authentic, or is it obvious hype? As one of the smart shoppers who abound in the world now, you should consider that online shopping experience to always have one more item in the shopping cart: your own scrutiny of ‘green’ marketing claims.


To demystify greenwashing, it can be split into three distinct categories: greenwashing for the environment; for consumers; and for businesses. As regards the former (the environment), greenwashing is, in reality, very bad for the environment, as it can encourage consumers to do the opposite of what’s good for the environment. “At its most benign, greenwashing makes claims that are neither good nor bad for the environment – it’s just making green claims to sell more stuff,” warn experts. On the other hand, for the consumer, the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’ should apply. This means that, if one is to spend money on a product, one has to make certain that the product or service (provider) is indeed doing what is right for the environment in reality and not being ‘green’ in order to increase sales. For the business, greenwashing may just be the way to go. Research shows that smart businesses have found that doing right by the environment increases profitability in many cases, if done properly. Done improperly or by simply misleading the consumer, greenwashing claims do more than backfire, as not only is the company’s image harmed, but the ultimate result is also that sales are affected negatively.


Greenwashing Index Scoring Criteria

Just as experts have claimed that, in essence, greenwashing is bad for the environment, so they contend that the more consumers see through greenwashing the more it will fail and that, overall, this is better for the economy. The following points should be noted, as they are what the Greenwashing Index has identified as the Greenwashing Index Scoring Criteria. How it works is this: if you rate an advert using this index, it will generate a score based on your response to the statements below. The score will be included in the advert’s overall score and any comments will be added to the tally. High scores are undesirable for the advertiser, while low scores mean that the company/product or service may not be leading consumers up the garden path. One should check if an advert:


  •  Misleads with words

Consider the following: Do you believe the advert misleads the viewer or reader about the company’s/products’ environmental impact through the things it says? Does it seem that the words are trying to make one believe there is a ‘green’ practice when there is not? Focus on the words only and consider what you think the advert is saying.


  •  Misleads with visuals and/or graphics

Do you think the advertiser has used ‘green’ or natural images in a way designed to make you think the product or company is more environmentally friendly than it really is?


  •  Makes a vague or seemingly unprovable ‘green’ claim

Does the advert claim environmental benefits without sufficiently identifying for you what they are? Has the advertiser provided a source for claims or of more information? Are the claims related to the company/product?


  •  Overstates or exaggerates the ‘greenness’

Do you believe the advertiser is overstating how ‘green’ the product/company actually is? Are the ‘green’ claims made by the advert believable? Do you think it’s possible for the product/company to do the things depicted/stated?


  •  Makes the ‘green’ claim sound better than it is

Do you think the advert exists to divert attention from something else that the company does? Do you believe the relevant collateral consequences of the product/service are considered in the advert? Does it seem to you that something is missing from the advert?


Greenwashing and South Africa

In many circles, greenwashing is considered to be unethical, but is this really the case, particularly when viewed in the light of growing economies such as that of South Africa? Ethical or not, there are experts who believe that it is a reality in South Africa. Many product manufacturers are guilty of greenwashing with their claims of ‘green’, ecofriendly or organic, misleading consumers into believing that they are purchasing ‘green’ products when in fact they are buying into marketing claims, says a report on News24. According to Rory Murray, Marketing Director of Tuffy Brands, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing says 98% of all ‘green’ claims made by companies and brands are guilty of one or more of the seven sins of greenwashing. These include ‘hidden trade-offs, no proof, vagueness, false labels, irrelevance, the lesser of two evils, and fibbing’. However, the concept of greenwashing is not new, as consumers have been misled about the environmental benefits of products and services for years.


“Green is no longer just a colour but has become a movement to make money,” Rory states. “Although we don’t have similar concrete figures in South Africa, we know that greenwashing is a reality in the country and [that] the majority of companies are guilty of deceptive claims.” He explains that, currently, there is no regulation to combat these claims. “We firmly believe that a regulatory body is needed to monitor and combat claims, as, currently, the only association taking measures to assist with this is the Advertising Standards Authority – and even then the resultant impact is not entirely useful.” He adds that consumers need to be cautious when purchasing products that have ‘green’ claims on them. “Check the content and how it was recycled – only when a product is recycled from a high content of post-consumer waste does it have any claim to be green, as it actually has an impact on the environment.” Rory concludes that, unfortunately, there is no label that exists for this type of information and it seems that it is consumers’ responsibility to check the wording on products carefully and make an educated decision themselves based on limited information. 



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