What is Greenwashing?

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term that you’ve perhaps heard thrown around in relation to a company’s green initiatives or ad campaigns. Greenwashing is when a company spends time and money advertising and marketing their products or services to appear environmentally friendly rather than exerting as much effort to actually produce environmentally friendly products in a sustainable way.

Some telltale signs of greenwashing include: false, misleading, or vague claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service, as well as the company failing to mention hidden trade-offs. An example of this could be a company advertising its product as environmentally friendly, because the product is made with recycled materials, while conveniently neglecting to mention the energy usage or toxic chemicals involved in creating the product, both of which contribute more to the environmental impact of the product than just the materials used.

Today we’ll be looking at:

  • Where the Term “Greenwashing” Came From
  • British Petroleum’s Greenwashing Ad Campaign
  • Starbucks and Getting Rid of Single-Use Plastic Straws
  • Walmart and “Biodegradable” Plastic Products
  • The Bottom Line

Where did the term “greenwashing” come from?

The term “greenwashing” first came into use in 1986. Environmentalist Jay Westerveld stayed in a South Pacific hotel room and found a note in the bathroom saying something to the effect of:

Interior of a modern hotel bathroom.“Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, ‘I will use it again.’ A towel on the floor means, ‘Please replace.’ Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.” 

If you’ve stayed in any major hotel, you’ve probably noticed this too. A survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association found that 83% of responding hotels had reuse programs for towels, and 88% had reuse programs for linens.

The irony, Westerveld pointed out, was that hotels waste resources in many, more impactful, ways, but by not washing as many linens, they were saving the corporation money.

Stanford Magazine points out that not washing a towel everyday saves the corporation product, labor, and utility costs and as a bonus, the hotel gets some environmentally friendly PR.

Here are some examples of how companies have used greenwashing to appear more eco-friendly without actually implementing environmentally friendly practices:

Working oil pump in deserted district in the bright of the moon

British Petroleum’s Greenwashing Ad Campaign

Oil and natural gas giant British Petroleum (BP) has a long history of greenwashing accusations. In 2000, British Petroleum rebranded its logo from the yellow outline of a shield to a green, yellow, and white flower. The company also rebranded its name to BP and adopted the slogan “Beyond Petroleum.” BP ads feature phrases such as “from the earth to the sun and everything in between” and “the best way out of the energy fix is an energy mix.” Such techniques can make the viewer unconsciously associate BP with environmental friendliness.

In reality, BP is still an oil and natural gas company with shareholders to please. According to Investopedia, in February 2020,

“BP lobbied President Trump to weaken certain environmental laws in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which would make it easier for the company to build infrastructure projects by bypassing certain federal requirements.” It is in these actions that BP shows where its true motives lie.”

Starbucks and Getting Rid of Single-Use Plastic Straws

Hipster Woman Drinking Iced Coffee Concept

In 2018, coffee giant Starbucks tried to jump on the trend of banning single-use straws. The company introduced strawless lids that had a sippable protrusion. The Guardian found that these new lids were actually slightly heavier than the straw and lid the company used before, meaning they used more plastic than the normal lid-straw combination.

Given Starbucks’s massive scale, a small increase in plastic per unit can have a massive impact on the plastic waste the company generates, especially given that more than 50% of Starbucks’s beverage mix comes from cold drinks. So, while the decision might have been seen as a win for anti-straw activists, it was not a win for the environment.

Walmart and “Biodegradable” Plastic Products

Trash Containers Background

In 2017, Walmart paid nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 23 California district attorneys accusing the grocery chain of labelling certain plastic products, such as plastic bags, as “biodegradable” or “compostable.”

“Unfortunately, Californians concerned with reducing plastic waste in landfills are commonly misled to purchase plastic bags and other plastic products based on marketers’ unsubstantiated claims of biodegradability, but almost nothing breaks down in a landfill,” said Alameda District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley.

SFGate, a sister-site of the San Francisco Chronicle, reported that as a result of the lawsuit, Walmart was banned from selling plastic products labelled biodegradable or compostable, unless the claims were backed by a scientific certification.


The Bottom Line

As long as companies can get away with simply talking the talk, they have incentive to continue greenwashing without implementing the massive changes we need in order to save the environment. We as consumers therefore have the responsibility to demand transparency and real climate-saving actions, and to be selective in the companies that we support, because if there’s one thing corporations listen to, it’s their bottom line.