We Need to Wash Away Greenwashing

Corporations that lie or mislead about their environmental responsibility are using greenwashing to profit from our concern about the planet. How do we stop this?
hands coloring a stack of gray pollution blue like the sky

We Need to Wash Away Greenwashing

We have all read or heard ads for 100% recyclable packaging or astonishingly low emission levels on a new car being advertised. The imprint “Made from 100% recycled plastic bottles” has become commonplace on many of the single-use plastics we use.

Many climate conscious end up being swayed to buy such products. We’d maybe even fork out an extra bit of cash to support companies that are pushing a climate-positive initiative. In and of themselves, these things are not bad on the part of consumers. Unfortunately, a large percentage of these claims is made up of lies.

This is called “greenwashing.” 

Claims of environmental responsibility have become ubiquitous on products in our stores and throughout the internet. A big problem is that there are no clear definitions for words like “green” and “low-carbon emissions” making it difficult to hold companies accountable for their misleading packaging. Often, it’s blatantly false advertising, but with no clear standards, there’s no accountability.

Some state and national governments are now creating regulations to curb greenwashing. Still, lies in advertising are not often prosecuted, nor are there incentives for companies to stick to the truth.  Corporations today tend to spend their money on creating an image of being environmentally friendly, rather than spending it on actually becoming so.

Volkswagen Dieselgate

German car manufacturer Volkswagen preached one of the most notorious examples of greenwashing. In 2015, their marketing campaign centered around their vehicle’s eco-friendly features and low-carbon emissions. However, it was soon found out that Volkswagen deceived their emissions testers in what came to be known as “Dieselgate.” The company fitted their test cars with a device that would detect when the vehicle was being tested and reduce the emissions rating of the car. 

“We’ve totally screwed up,” said Michael Horn, the American head of Volkswagen. 

Unfortunately, it’s a safe assumption that more corporations are getting by with proverbial climate murder by skirting nearly non-existent regulations and being less than honest about their practices. The only difference is that Volkswagen got caught.

As long as we are willing to pay a bit more for so-called green products, a practice in itself that isn’t bad, most companies will dive at the chance to add a few dollars to their profit margins in dishonest ways.

Greenwashing can come in the form of lies, stretched truths, and even just distractions—distractions from the company’s greater climate issues. 

Fashion Industry and Greenwashing

The fashion industry may be the greatest perpetrator of greenwashing. Fashion companies notoriously release one product that is environmentally friendly, leading customers to believe that sustainability is the ethos of the whole company. This disguises the damage these companies are doing to the environment through the rest of their products.

An example of this is the emergence of tennis shoes made from recycled materials. While these products are good and helpful, other products many of these companies make are considerably less environmentally friendly. The production of modern textiles uses massive amounts of petrochemical products that come from many of the same oil and gas companies that have been driving dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.

The fashion industry accounts for a whopping 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions—more than the pollution caused by international flights and by global shipping combined, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Twenty percent of the 300 million tons of plastic produced across the globe each year is made by the fashion industry. Polyester, derived from oil, has taken over cotton textiles in shoe and clothing manufacturing. Polyester and other synthetic fibers are the main cause of microplastic pollution, which is killing our oceans.

How Do We Address Greenwashing?

Halting greenwashing from the start is the best way of addressing it. 

Transparency with climate plans and a full explanation of the labeling on products are key ways of stopping greenwashing. Companies need to be more honest about their comprehensive approaches regarding their environmental conservation efforts.

Following disastrous cases such as Volkwagen, the Securities and Exchange Commission has released a novel climate disclosure rule forcing public companies to disclose to their shareholders exactly how their practices affect the environment.

The EU released its Sustainable Financial Disclosure Regulation in 2022.  It was created to aid transparency in the European market, to create more clarity surrounding sustainability claims by companies, and to stop greenwashing.

The United States, however, has done no such thing. Corporations pay big money to buy votes from our elected representatives. So long as we remain apathetic about what our representatives are doing, corporations will continue to control our laws.

Last year, Goldman Sachs paid $4 million to the SEC to settles charges that they misled investors by refusing to be transparent about the truth of investments, sold as environmentally positive. For this corporation, $4 million is a drop in the bucket. They likely made considerably more money with their lies than they lost by being held “accountable.”

When companies use vague words such as ‘green,’ ‘organic,’ and ‘natural,’ we need to look at the products descriptions and get specifics. When companies lie or are distracting from less-than-honorable environmental practices, we need to stand up on social media and to our lawmakers and hold them accountable.

But, most importantly, to really avoid greenwashing, we need to shop smaller and begin buying local. Ultimately, we are the only ones with power. We can either be complacent, or we can care about the environment, our future, and the planet we’re leaving for generations to come.