Greenwashing and wishcycling

Yesterday (2 March 2023) the ACCC announced it would crack down on ‘greenwashing’. The ACCC stated it would “step up its probe of companies’ environmental claims”  after a survey found more than half the companies they looked at had made misleading statements ranging from overstating climate action to developing their own certification schemes.

The ACCC survey undertook a survey in October last year that looked at 247 Australian businesses or brands across eight sectors. The found that 57% had promoted “concerning claims about their environmental credentials”.

“Consumers are now, more than ever, making purchasing decisions on environmental grounds,” said ACCC deputy chair Catriona Lowe. “Unfortunately, it appears that rather than making legitimate changes to their practices and procedures, some businesses are relying on false or misleading claims,” the Guardian reported.

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing, is a term first used by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986.  He used it when claiming the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy; when, in fact, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure.

Greenwashing is defined as a deceptive marketing strategy used by companies to make their products or services appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. It is a form of marketing and advertising manipulation to mislead consumers into believing that they are making eco-friendly choices when they are not. Femwashing is a newer concept that parallels greenwashing except with feminism.

Deiselgate

One of the largest international cases of  greenwashing occurred known as “Dieselgate” a few years ago with Volkswagen using software to reduce exhaust emissions during testing to comply with regulations. Their engines in fact were producing 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide.  The ACCC initiated Federal Court proceedings against Volkswagen in September 2016. Volkswagen agreed in 2019 to settle for a fine of $75 million (and $4 million in court costs).

How can you identify greenwashing?

1. Hidden trade-offs

Hidden trade-offs are the most common form of greenwashing. This involves a company promoting one environmental attribute of its product or service while ignoring the negative environmental impacts of other aspects. In 2018, Starbucks released a “straw-less lid”, as part of its sustainability program. The lid contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combination. Starbucks claimed that it is made from polypropylene, a recyclable plastic that “can be captured in recycling infrastructure” but it was pointed out that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled.

This is known as “wish-cycling” when products are advertised as recyclable but there are no feasible recycling programs of facility to do so so the product ends up in a landfill. The Megan Herbert cartoon used in the post (with permission) illustrates this point.

2. No proof

No proof greenwashing is when a company makes a vague or unverifiable environmental claim. This involves a company making an environmental claim without providing any evidence to back it up. For example, carbon offsets have come under heavy scrutiny for not delivering anywhere near the benefits stated.

3. Vagueness

Vagueness greenwashing involves using vague or broad terms that are difficult to define or measure. For example, In 2018, Nestlé released a statement saying that it had “ambitions” for its packaging to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. In Break Free From Plastic’s 2020 annual report, Nestlé, along with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, were named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row.

In June 2021, environmental organisation Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against Coca Cola for falsely advertising that it is sustainable and eco-friendly despite being the largest plastic polluter in the world.

4. Irrelevance

Irrelevance greenwashing is when a company makes an environmental claim that is technically true but has little to no relevance to the product or service. For example, a company might claim that its product is “CFC-free,” even though CFCs were banned decades ago and are no longer used in the production of most products.

5. Misdirection

BP CEO John Browne, who publicly called for ratification of the Kyoto protocol and famously champions corporate social responsibility despite refusing to stop drilling for oil in an environmentally endangered Arctic environment. BP’s advertising has focused on BP’s low-carbon energy products, when more than 96% of its annual spend is on oil and gas.

6. Fibbing

“Fibbing” greenwashing involves outright lying about an environmental claim. For example, ASIC has taken its first action for ‘greenwashing’ against listed energy company Tlou Energy Limited (Tlou) over concerns about alleged false or misleading sustainability-related statements made to the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) in October 2021. One of their claims that the electricity produced by Tlou would be carbon neutral.

Keurig led Canadian buyers to believe they could recycle their single-use plastic coffee pods but most Canadian provinces wouldn’t accept them. Keurig were fined $3 million and ordered to change the misleading recycling claims on the packaging.

Lets get going ACCC

A crackdown on greenwashing is indeed needed.