Rubric “SMMISEL” (SENSE)
Three and a half decades of green deception: where are we?
Meta Pavlin Avdić // July 2021
How long have we known the term green deception in Slovenia?
This is a nice translation of the original “greenwashing”, but a quick search on Google shows it in just a little over ten hits. Negligible. Does this mean we don’t have it, that we don’t know how to recognise it or that we still don’t deal with it enough?
When is a company in a position where it can afford the umbrella message or the title “We are environmentally neutral”? When there is an asterisk next to it that explains in which (modest) points we actually are, when there are scientific claims behind it, or when “we” means really “we”, i.e. the whole company signed and not just one piece of it. Some time ago, in front of the entrance to one of our self-service drugstores, I was drawn to the sign “We are environmentally neutral*” (with an asterisk at the end). Below the sign there are placed three products from the new line, which is identified as “environmentally neutral products*” (also with an asterisk). Of course, a signature with the company logo is added. Is this green deception?
The towels are to blame
The term “greenwashing” was mentioned long ago in 1986, when environmentalist Jay Westerveld, then still a student on a research expedition to Samoa, placed the word in one of his professional papers based on his experience in one of the hotels in Fiji. During his visit to Fiji, where he stopped for surfing, he noticed a sign in the hotel room (where he snuck in to get a towel – but he didn’t actually stay there) asking him to pick up the towels from the floor and reuse them. “Oceans and coral reefs are an important natural resource and reusing towels will reduce ecological damage,” explained the sign, and called for “help us, help our environment.” We are all familiar with these signs in hotel rooms. What bothered Westerveld was that the hotel was building new bungalows at the same time, interfering with green parts of the island. Also that the hotel complex did not care for a sustainable relationship with the environment through any other actions. He concluded that the reason for the inscription was simply to reduce the costs incurred by washing dirty towels. When he later wrote a professional article, he summed it up: “And in the end, it’s all ‘greenwash'”. Green washing of dirty laundry. The term caught on immediately, later earning its entry in dictionaries such as the Cambridge Dictionary, and has stuck around to this day. In our country, also thanks to non-governmental organizations, the translation “green deception” has become established.
35 years later, “greenwash” does not simply mean misleading consumers about their relationship to the environment, which a product or service is supposed to do. Even though it doesn’t actually have advantages, or the benefits it describes are minimal compared to the ecological damage it causes in parallel with other operational processes. The importance of “greenwashing” extends to all areas of sustainability, so it is not limited to environmental issues, but can also be related to topics such as gender equality, poverty, hunger, health, education, decent work, etc. The bottom line is that all these are misleading “green” marketing claims aimed to increasing sales or enhancing a company’s reputation. Well-intentioned consumers are misled into making purchases that do not meet the company’s environmental or social promises. Companies that make green lies (the literal translation of the term “greenwashers” would be much more fun here) talk loudly about sustainability and sustainable steps, but they don’t actually contribute anything to solving environmental and social problems.
We sinned, green
In the last decade, green deception has become a multi-tentacled octopus. Experts say that a good part of green deception can actually be attributed to ignorance. So that it is unintentional. The hardest nut are the cases in which companies deliberately mislead consumers through marketing and PR campaigns, refer to scientific bases, research, collaborations and consciously communicate misleading claims.
“Green sins” were already published in 2007 by the American environmental marketing organisation TerraChoice in one of its publications. On the basis of the conducted research or analysis of communicated environmental claims, they define six sins: covert compensation/compromise (highlighting only one good environmental feature, which is not false, but neglecting the rest), without proof (communicated arguments cannot be verified), vagueness (poor or overly broad definition, which misleads the customer into understanding the real facts), irrelevance (emphasis on features that may be true but not relevant to the product), lesser of two lies (the claim is true within the product category, but distracts the consumer from understanding the larger impacts of the entire category) and the sin of outright lying (simply false environmental claims). These definitions somehow caught on, so they are still in use to this day.
The research also recorded the prevalence of individual sins. The most frequently committed sin (75%) is covert compensation, followed by obscurity (11%) and the sin of no proof (26%). Next is irrelevance (4%), and 1% for the sin of outright lies and the lesser of two lies.
Did you already sign the recommendations to prevent green deception?
Where do our companies stand within this? It’s hard to say, because we haven’t actively started to deal with green advertising yet. Perhaps this is due to the lack of attention (and lack of knowledge) on the part of the competent inspection services, perhaps consumers have not woken up yet to start co-creating an appropriate media space with reports (as we do, for example, with alcohol advertising). But most likely it’s the relatively low level awareness of companies themselves. Awkward text translations received from international headquarters can also be a good reason.
My suggestion? Connect with local organisations who understand the issues and terminology; partnerships and connections are the core of sustainable development.
The Center for Energy Efficient Solutions (CER) – a signatory to recommendations for the prevention of green fraud and a supporter of the international call for more responsible sustainable operation of companies since 2020 – also encourages companies to fight against greenwashing. The manual was prepared in the Norwegian business network of Skift organizations – Climate Business Leaders, Zero, Future in our hands and WWF Norway.
“Responsible companies strive to create common values for themselves and for society and they don’t abuse green promises,” CER writes on its website and invites people to sign the recommendations. The handbook is not a set of laws, but a tool to help companies avoid green deception. I strongly recommend that you scroll through the manual, which is prepared in the form of a website, and you can access it via publication on the CER website (or directly at https://gronnvasking.no).
An asterisk to the rescue?
Back to the beginning. As a woman in a story described in the introduction, I was also confused by the printed sign in the store next to the presented products. “Imagine period is now environmentally neutral*” (with an asterisk at the end, of course). Next to it’s a photo of the product, feminine hygiene pads, at the bottom there is a description in small print. Realising that women’s pads are one of the environmentalists’ biggest problems, it caught my interest. What role do the 5 indicators hiding behind the asterisk play in the ecological issue called hygiene pads? Let’s look at the facts. Every woman has about 500 menstrual cycles in her life, during which she will use about 11,000 hygienic menstrual products. According to the online platform Friends of the Earth, 1.5 to 2 billion pieces of these items are flushed down British toilets alone every year, ending up in oceans and beaches. The Marine Conservation Society records an average of 4.8 toiletries for every 100 meters of beach they clean. I’ll leave the calculation of world population up to you.
On the other hand; a search for keywords “hygiene pads” and “acidification” (which is one of five indicators of the mentioned case) does not find any results on Google. Admittedly, I’m not an expert for various impacts the production process of pads has on the environment, so I’ll admit my mistake. Perhaps the connection between the production of hygiene pads and acidification is huge – but even so is it even bigger than the problem of used unsuitable for recycling, full of plastic hygiene pads (even up to 90% of the ingredients!) that women (also in Slovenia) are still flushing down the sewage system? One also thinks about the used water resources and many other things…
Is balancing the five indicators related to the environmental impact of the production process really enough to make the promise of environmentally neutral period, or is it greenwashing?
The consumer will pass the judgment. We know that he is becoming more and more aware, we also know that he requires more and more explanations. Whether he got them in this case, everyone will decide for himself. All I can say is – we’ve evened it out, haven’t we? It’s a shame, because the mentioned products are a good incentive for the consumer. A slightly less “boasting” position, realistic and transparent, supported by initiative and involvement in the entire issue (e.g. supported by awareness of where hygiene pads should end up in order to cause the least impact on the environment, as well as what are today’s alternatives), would show a completely different output and have a completely different effect.
Recommendations for the prevention of green deception
Be honest and responsible.
Make sure company’s sustainability efforts are not limited to the communications and marketing departments.
Avoid talking about the importance of sustainability, nature, climate and ethical trade if your company is not seriously engaged in these issues.
Don’t avoid communicating emissions and negative impacts on climate, nature and human lives.
Be careful about using a large portion of your marketing budget for small actions that don’t significantly affect your company’s environmental impact.
Avoid purchasing a clear conscience through climate quotas (equalizations) or leaving environmental activations to others.
Use only established, credible sustainability labels or work to establish good labeling mechanisms in your industry.
Be careful when using terms like “better for the climate, nature and environment”.
Defining commitments only from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (17 SDGs) can be misleading.
Donations and sponsorships are great, but it doesn’t prove that you are working on sustainability.
Explore more details at: https://gronnvasking.no.