An extinction rebellion rally took over the city centre on Thursday to protest a corporate marketing practice called ‘greenwashing’. The demonstration is one of many planned during the COP26 summit where world leaders are meeting to renew commitments to tackle climate change.
This event is different from the others due to take place during COP26 as it intends to shine a light on the rhetoric of world leaders rather than their actions and policies.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a marketing technique that misleads the public into believing that a company’s practices are environmentally friendly. The most common form is false claims or vague language, usually including terms like “natural”, “organic” or “eco-friendly” which are hard to disprove or substantiate.
The term itself was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld when he pointed out the irony of the ‘Save the Towel’ movement that was run by hotels at the time.
While originally referring to companies and corporate practices, concerns have been raised by protestors that it is now being employed by countries engaged in COP26. One such group were the ‘Greenwash Busters’:
What does greenwash look like?
Greenwashing takes many forms in various different industries from fashion to aviation and can be hard to identify. However, a classic example took place in 2019 when McDonalds committed to stop using single use plastic straws with paper straws to be ‘greener’. It later emerged that that the new paper straws could not be recycled when the previous plastic ones could.
A McDonald’s spokesperson said: “As a result of customer feedback, we have strengthened our paper straws, so while the materials are recyclable, their current thickness makes it difficult for them to be processed by our waste solution providers, who also help us recycle our paper cups.”
How common is it?
According to the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), it is extremely common. Earlier in the year, an investigation of 500 websites found that 42% of green online claims were exaggerated, false or deceptive and could potentially qualify as unfair commercial practices under EU rules.
Subsequently, the EU Commission and consumer authorities examined 344 dubious claims in more detail.
In response to the findings, Didier Reynders, EU Commissioner for Justice, said: “More and more people want to live a green life, and I applaud companies that strive to produce eco-friendly products or services. However, there are also unscrupulous traders out there, who pull the wool over consumers’ eyes with vague, false or exaggerated claims.”
What is being done to stop it?
The UK Government has backed The Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) to tackle greenwashing. In September 2021, they produced the Green Claims Code which offers a set of criteria for companies to check whether they have been greenwashing.
If companies do not comply with consumer protection law which safeguards against making misleading environmental claims, the CMA can take companies to court. If consumers have been harmed by any breach of consumer protection law, businesses may be forced by the courts.
How can I recognise products that are genuinely eco-friendly?
The UK Government has recognised several certifications that allow consumers to trust claims made in packaging and advertising. Here is a list of just some of them:
- EPEAT – A rating system for greener electronics used across 43 countries. The certificate addresses the elimination of toxic substances, the use of recycled and recyclable materials, product design for recycling, product longevity, energy efficiency, corporate performance and packaging attributes.
- On-Pack Recycling Label – Provides a standard consumer recycling label, which is simple, consistent, evidence led and provides sufficient information to make it easy for consumers to recycle more packaging, more often.
- CarbonNeutral – A global standard to certify that businesses have measured and reduced their CO2 emissions to net zero for their company, products, operations or services.
- Fairtrade – The Fairtrade standards are designed to support the sustainable development of small-scale producers and agricultural workers in the poorest countries in the world.
- Rainforest Alliance Certified – Ensures that a product comes from a farm or forest operation that meets comprehensive standards that protect the environment and promote the rights and well-being of workers, their families and communities.