We have recently discussed the concept of sustainability and our extensive understanding of the term. Now, we would like to talk more about what we do not see as sustainability, namely, greenwashing.
This broad phenomenon comprises different tactics that organizations utilize to make people believe that they adopt more sustainable practices than what they actually do. Greenwashing is a threat to real sustainable development: it can lead us to consume products that are not produced in line with our values, and it can hamper the success of sustainable achievements.
The goal of 180 Degrees Consulting is to create lasting social impact. Together with our student consultants, we are passionate about creating real, long-term solutions for our sustainability-minded clients. Talking about greenwashing is important to us – in order to define our standpoint, we need to define what we are stepping apart from.
Greenwashing comes in different shades. We’d like to help you spot some of them.
To create a positive corporate image, companies may use visual imagery with positive connotations. Symbolic images are broadly used to associate unsustainable products and services with positive mental images.
Idyllic pictures of farms in industrially produced food packages or happy-looking workers telling proudly that it is their passion to sew clothes for global retailers are just some examples. Our daily lives are full of them.
Companies may simply just give false information about their actions and products, or put claims on their labels indicating sustainability that is not possible to be verified. Some might even make up their own sustainability certificates that have not been validated.
Sustainability claims may also be irrelevant. Certain “free-from” claims are, undeniably, real environmental claims but insignificant due to the substance mentioned being already illegal.
Companies sometimes make one part of their product sustainable while completely “forgetting” its good intentions with the rest of the production.
How many times have you seen a company try to capitalize on recyclable package materials?
One whole product can also be used as bait. A small eco-friendly and fairly produced product may be created to draw customers closer. Even when the rest of the products are far from sustainable, this one product can create an image that the company has good values in all its production.
OBFUSCATION AND OTHER VAGUENESS
Lack of sustainability can be well hidden with jargon and confusing gobbledygook that serve the purpose of communicating unclear messages. Sometimes bombastic statements sound much better than they actually are.
Using words with positive connotations, such as conscious, green, recycled, and organic, may also give a vague idea of sustainability but they may not reveal the whole picture. This is related to the red herring tactic: if one part of the product is recycled or socially conscious, it does not make the whole product eco-friendly or fair.
You should even be suspicious when seeing the word sustainable being used. Ask yourself, does the company talk about all the three important dimensions of sustainability: the environmental, the economic, and the social?
It can be hard to identify greenwashing from a genuine aim for sustainability. Therefore it is best to think about the values of the company. Why does it exist? Does it really try to contribute to sustainable development?
We acknowledge that no company or customer is perfect but we should all try our best to communicate about our values.
Master student in Media and Communication at Lund University. The author holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with a minor in Political Sciences from the University of Helsinki. Anna is a Marketing Director at 180 Degrees Consulting Lund.