The Past, Present, and Future Hazards of Greenwashing
The United States’ energy consumption released 4.98 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, in 2021. Although this is lower than in years past, thanks to renewable energy becoming more available and practical, there are still many ways companies and consumers can be conscious of their effect on the environment. Unfortunately, this can be difficult, as many companies promote environmentalism and “going green” without taking responsibility for their carbon emissions. This is commonly referred to as Greenwashing.
The term “greenwashing” was first recorded by Jay Westerveld in 1986. The New York environmentalist published an essay about the hotel industry and their promotion of reusing towels to “save the environment,” despite the companies’ lack of effort toward becoming more sustainable.
While this was the first use of the word, greenwashing was first noticed in 1953 with the Keep America Beautiful campaign founded by beverage manufacturers. This marketing campaign focused on recycling and discouraged littering. It successfully diverted any attention to the corporations themselves and their negative environmental impacts by preventing any regulation of disposable containers.
By the 1960s, companies started creating a “green” image while turning little to no attention to sustainability efforts, and on the first Earth Day in 1970, public utilities spent $300 million advertising themselves as sustainable, environmentally friendly companies. Meanwhile, eight times less was spent on researching pollution reduction.
Westerveld’s essay concluded the focus was still largely on profits, and it still remains the general consensus today.
Research and Regulation
The Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, now known as the American Marketing Association, found in 1991, 58% of environmental ads had at least one untruthful claim, and 77% of consumers said a company’s environmental reputation influenced whether they would complete a purchase. This led to ¼ of all household products marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, especially around Earth Day.
With all the dishonesty, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created “Green Guidelines” in 1998, designed to clearly regulate what was allowed to be used in environmental marketing. However, in 1999, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) was found to be dishonestly claiming their environmentalism, but the FTC was unable to do anything because the NEI was technically out of their jurisdiction. So, the FTC made changes, defining more enforceable standards and adding “greenwashing” to the Oxford English Dictionary later that same year.
Major corporations all over the world are claiming to have goals to achieve net-zero emissions in the next few decades. While these seem like fantastic goals for the planet, many of these promises are not aligned with scientific findings or action plans. The United Nations recommends corporations publicly announce their net-zero emissions goals with progressing targets for every five years and a 50% reduction by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
These recommendations and goals work well for companies not basing their main profits off nonrenewable resource usage, especially as costs for renewable resources continue to fall and the technology becomes more accessible and efficient.
However, for corporations relying on fossil fuels, greenwashing continues.
Modern Day Examples
In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to cheating their emissions tests by creating a separate software that could detect emissions testing and alter the vehicle’s performance to reduce its levels. The company had been marketing low-emission features and when concerns were raised in 2014, they were dismissed as “technical issues” and “unexpected” conditions. When the accusations were deemed factual, it was revealed about 11 million cars around the world were releasing 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.
The phrase “Clean Burning Natural Gas” was adopted by several fossil fuel companies as natural gas production increased by about 75% from 2015-2022. While it is not necessarily false – natural gas produces 50% less carbon dioxide when burned – it is not clean. It is, in the nonrenewable energy industry, commonly referred to as the “bridge” between coal and oil burning and renewable energy production.
However, natural gas is made up of mostly methane. When methane is left unburned, it is roughly 70 times more potent than carbon dioxide and it is running out more quickly than other fossil fuels. Because of fracking and its profitability, more wells are being drilled across the world and methane is escaping. A 2012 study found as little as 3% of the mined methane is released into the atmosphere, the air pollution is about the same if companies were burning coal instead. Mining in Uintah Basin, Utah had a methane emission rate of 6.2%-11.7% of the natural gas production in the same year.
Greenwashing also affects consumer perception and behavior, like it did in the 1990s, though more consumers are aware of corporations’ claims and actions. Additionally, the FTC charged six companies in 2013 for misrepresenting the sustainability of their products. Companies are now required to provide the qualifiers for their environmental claims with full transparency.
How to Spot Greenwashing
When businesses use buzzwords like “green,” “eco,” and “sustainable,” they do not typically correspond with any factual evidence. Watch for these buzzwords and do a bit of research to help weed out deceptive claims.
A European airline, Ryanair, had an advertisement banned in 2019 claiming to be Europe’s “lowest emissions” airline because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support the statement. Without sufficient evidence, the advertisement was too vague, and consumers should think about the bigger picture when approaching claims such as this.
Hiding information while claiming sustainability, offsetting carbon emissions while claiming to meet emission reduction targets, and difficulty finding details on sustainability claims often point to greenwashing as well.
Consumers should believe claims with caution. Even though the FTC is working to regulate as many as they can, advertisements are typically distributed before being banned.
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