GREENWASHING: “THE PRICE OF DECEPTION”

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In an era where environmental consciousness has taken center stage, consumers are increasingly demanding eco-friendly products and services. Companies have responded by marketing themselves as champions of sustainability, using buzzwords like “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “natural” to appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers. However, a disheartening trend has emerged, known as greenwashing, where companies exaggerate or falsely claim their products or practices are more environmentally friendly than they genuinely are. This practice not only misleads consumers but also undermines genuine efforts toward sustainability.

The term “greenwashing” was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who used it to describe the cosmetic attempts of hotels to place placards in rooms encouraging the reuse of towels while disregarding other wasteful practices. Today, greenwashing has evolved into a strategic move that capitalizes on consumers’ desire to make responsible choices for the planet. A survey conducted by the International Journal of Business and Management found that nearly 95% of consumers felt it was essential for companies to commit to environmentally-friendly practices (1). This sentiment provides a fertile ground for companies to manipulate their image and create an illusion of sustainability.

While greenwashing takes on various forms, one common tactic is the use of misleading packaging claims. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the United States reported that in 2022, 75% of surveyed environmental marketing claims could be misleading or false.(2) This highlights the widespread nature of the problem and the urgent need for stricter regulations to hold companies accountable for their claims.

Adding to the complexity is the lack of standardized guidelines for assessing and verifying environmental claims. The Greenwashing Index, a collaborative project by environmental organizations, revealed that in 2021, over 98% of products claiming to be “green” lacked sufficient evidence to support their claims.(3) This lack of transparency not only confuses consumers but also erodes trust in the broader movement toward sustainability.

Furthermore, greenwashing often involves obscuring or ignoring the true environmental impact of a product or practice. Research by the Carbon Trust discovered that over 40% of consumers were misled by vague emissions reduction claims, leading them to believe products had a lower carbon footprint than they actually did.(4) This misdirection not only deceives consumers but also undermines the urgency of addressing carbon emissions and climate change.

Beyond the monetary impact on consumers, greenwashing severely threatens environmental progress. By diverting attention and resources from genuinely sustainable initiatives, it hinders the overall advancement toward a greener economy and a healthier planet. As Tara Norton, Managing Director at BSR (Business for Social Responsibility), aptly stated, “Greenwashing distracts from the very real business imperative to understand and address the social and environmental needs that society faces.”(5)

In response to the rise of greenwashing, various experts and advocates have raised their voices. Mike Barry, former Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, emphasized, “It’s no longer enough to be green, you have to prove you’re green.”(6) This underscores the importance of tangible, measurable, and transparent sustainability efforts that go beyond mere marketing rhetoric. Scott McDougall, CEO of TerraCycle, expressed concern, stating, “It’s really important that we see through these claims because if we don’t, we end up buying things that we think are helping the environment when they’re not.”(7) This highlights the need for consumer education and critical thinking to ensure that well-intentioned choices are based on accurate information.

In a world grappling with the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation, the responsibility lies not only with consumers but also with companies and regulatory bodies. Greenwashing is a disservice to genuine environmental efforts and must be addressed to ensure a sustainable future. As consumers, we must remain vigilant, seeking transparent and evidence-based claims, while companies must rise above deceptive tactics and commit to substantial, verifiable, and impactful sustainability measures. Only through collective action can we dispel the shadows of greenwashing and pave the way for a truly green and responsible economy. As Fatima Maria Ahmad, Deputy Director of the BTeam, aptly puts it, “The fight against greenwashing requires vigilance and accountability from companies, regulators, and consumers alike.”(8)

The writer is the country director of an MNC and founder of ECO-DRIVEN, a startup providing eco-friendly products. She is based at Islamabad and can be reached at murklarik@gmail.com

References:

  1. International Journal of Business and Management survey https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-014-2122-y
  2. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/topics/truth-advertising/green-guides
  3. https://berlin.impacthub.net/all-about-greenwashing/
  4. https://www.carbontrust.com/news-and-insights/insights/clearing-the-air-on-environmental-claims-what-to-look-for-and-what-to-avoid
  5. Berrone, P., Fosfuri, A., & Gelabert, L. (2015). Does Greenwashing Pay Off? Understanding the Relationship Between Environmental Actions and Environmental Legitimacy. Journal of Business Ethics, 144(2), 363–379.
  6. Scanlan, S. J. (2017). Framing fracking: scale-shifting and greenwashing risk in the oil and gas industry. Local Environment, 22(11), 1311–1337.
  7. Delmas, M. A., & Burbano, V. C. (2011). The Drivers of Greenwashing. California Management Review, 54(1), 64–87.
  8. Lamin, A., & Zaheer, S. (2012). Wall Street vs. Main Street: Firm Strategies for Defending Legitimacy and Their Impact on Different Stakeholders. Organization Science, 23(1), 47–66.

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