How Corporations Trick You Into Buying Their “Sustainable” Stuff

Greenwashing Is a Real Threat to Solving Climate Change

Graphic Jonathan Franken

As the climate disaster inches its way closer and closer to us, we are being told as a society to do our part.

Late-stage capitalist businesses have, of course, found a variety of ways to encourage change from others while not changing any of their own methods of operation. One particularly dangerous way is greenwashing.

Greenwashing is when you advertise your product or brand as being better for the environment than it actually is.

Greenwashing can be roughly categorized by misleading changes and misleading terminolgy and packaging.

Why is it so dangerous? Here’s the deal: a lot of people actually do want to make changes to help the environment.

According to a Nielsen report, 73 per cent of global consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consuming habits to reduce their environmental impact.

With that large majority, corporations would be throwing money away not being sustainable, right? Of course, sustainability means changing production methods, training, modernization, and a whole lot more costs that would put a dent in their revenues. The solution? Misleading advert ising, or greenwashing!

Let’s look at misleading changes first. This is when a company makes a change for a reason other than sustainability, or that has a negative trade-off, then advertises that change as being eco-friendly.

There’s a few examples: advertising something without chlorofluorocarbons when they have been heavily restricted for 40 years; packaging being reduced to cut costs; or clothing made from recycled fibers fabricated in sweatshops.

This kind of greenwashing is less obvious to spot without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, which makes it all the more difficult for a consumer to know when they are being duped by marketing.

I’d like to stress that I am not shaming consumers for falling for the tricks of marketers when facing greenwashed products. These corporations shouldn’t be lying about their products to make a quick buck, and it’s already hard enough to survive for many people, so putting the blame on them for a dirty marketing trick is just unfair.

“Late-stage capitalist businesses have, of course, found a variety of ways to encourage change from others while we not changing any of their own methods of operation.”

Luckily, the second big greenwashing category is much easier to spot. Here, the advertisement of the product is being misleading, vague, and sometimes just plain untruthful. There are a few handy ways to tell when a product is being greenwashed in this method. The packaging might use colours associated with eco-friendliness, like green, but also earthier colours or softer pastel greens and yellows, with pictures of plants or cute animals on the plastic packaging (think laundry detergent or dish soap).

There are also vague guarantees or certifications that aren’t backed up by anything or that have made-up classifications.

They can feature claims of their eco-friendliness that seem to be from third-party groups, but the claim or the group are actually made up. Or, they claim to be “best in class,” which makes them seem good by comparison when they are only barely better than they’re competitors. Finally, sometimes companies just straight up lie about how eco-friendly they are.

In 2015, it was discovered that Volkswagen had been cheating laboratory emissions testing on their turbo-charged diesel cars, which they had advertised for years as using “clean diesel technology.” In reality, they had been producing up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than permitted under the United States’ laws.

Why greenwash? For one, you have to increase costs to make a product that’s actually more sustainable, with all of the overhaul in business structure and strategy that goes with making a real change. Why worry about that as a company when you can amass goodwill for minimal costs? There is also the question of brand loyalty.

One of the most important aspects of marketing, brand loyalty happens when a consumer buys the same brand or product, no matter the price or competition. What could be better then, for your typical loyal consumer, if the product they usually buy anyway has nice new packaging that says “RECYCLABLE!” or “CERTIFIED ORGANIC!” For the company, it’s a win-win scenario: the consumer will feel good about buying a seemingly sustainable product, and is more likely to buy it again if they are satisfied, and all it cost you was developing a marketing strategy.

Of course, the environment is the big loser in this transaction.

Because greenwashing is so prevalent, it’s hard to distinguish what’s a real sustainable product and what is just marketing trickery, which ultimately means the failure of preventing climate change by shopping sustainably in this current system.

Corporations are willing to trick you into buying the same products by making the box green and lying to you to save a buck. No wonder they are the biggest contributors to climate change.

So, the next time you’re at a big-box store (or shopping online, it is 2020 after all) and you see that a product is claiming to be eco-friendly, but in a vague way, ask yourself: Am I being greenwashed?