By: Nadashree M.K.
The latest Glasgow climate conference was observed as the final chance to save the Earth as we are at the Code Red. As the public push for environmental reforms, corporations- the major players in climate change who claim to be eco-friendly, are often not held accountable for their actions by the leaders.
What is Greenwashing?
Since the COP26 meet, the term greenwashing has been widely used by environmentalists and the media. Greenwashing is a practice where a company or organisation makes misleading claims on their products or services, labeling them as environment friendly while they really are not. The corporations spend more money and time to make them appear favourable to the environment while they actually do little to protect the environment. The term was coined by Jay Westerveld, an environmentalist in 1986. During a time when the public had limited access to information, the corporates advertised them as champions of environment friendly standards despite the fact that they are engaged in highly unsustainable practices.
The corporations use media such as print, television and radio to flood with high-quality advertisements to highlight their eco-friendly practices. As pointed out in The Guardian article, greenwashing dates back to the 1960’s. At the peak of the anti-nuclear power plant movement, which challenged nuclear power plants, an American electrical giant Westinghouse counteracted it with a series of advertisements, claiming them to be safe and clean. While the Westinghouse power plants produced cheap electricity with relatively less air pollution than coal power plants, they ignored the environmental impact of nuclear power plants, which still counts as a major environmental issue.
The Ugly Side of Corporates
More than anyone, corporations have been greenwashing the public for a long time to represent them as game-changers. Today, as more people are willing to choose eco-friendly products, especially millennials, it is easier for companies to use their green tactics to attract more consumers. But it becomes a challenge for consumers when they are unable to differentiate between actual sustainable products, thus making an ethical choice. Multi-million-dollar companies have been constantly exposed for greenwashing through their PR strategies in the public. German automobile giant Volkswagen faced a massive scandal in 2015 when their unethical practice which they promoted in the ad campaigns was uncovered.
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The fast fashion industry is the second-largest polluter in the world and they are no less in greenwashing. Major fast fashion brands such as H&M, Mango, Zara and Shein have recently released campaigns portraying them as eco-friendly. H&M launched a green-sustainable clothing line called Conscious, which is made from organic cotton and recycled polyester. However, the company did not define what its sustainable production is. Shein too launched a similar campaign, adopting environment-friendly production practices in fabric printing, water and power use. With the vague claims made by the brand and due to lack of proper data and verification, it’s difficult to believe how ethical are Shein’s production practices.
In 2019, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon agreed on the Climate pledge to achieve the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement by 2040 like renewable energy and net-zero carbon targets, induction of electrical vehicles and reforestation projects. In addition to this, the company announced that it will reduce packaging and use renewable energy for its data centres. According to analysts, this move came just after the climate strike organized by the employees of Amazon headquarters in Seattle. While the Amazon Employees for Climate Strike supported the climate pledge of Bezos, they demanded more participation of the company in tackling climate change.
Following the climate strike in Amazon, employees of many corporations came together to express their concern about the company’s role in environmental degradation. While corporations adopt the path of sustainability (which is sometimes ironic), the companies tend to forget their past and present harmful practices on the environment. Dilution of EIA criteria is another side of corporate greenwashing, even though the corporations are under regular scrutiny of governments. Through lobbying, delayed implementations of legislations and influencing the authorities, the companies are easily able to ignore EIA for their operations. Though the companies display the environmental social and corporate governance (ESG), the question of the credibility of the sustainable approaches and environment-friendly activities stands thus far.
We Need Actions, Not Promises
Climate change has now become a matter of political and public will. By increasing environmental consciousness and demand for eco-reforms, millennials-who are the key targets of the corporations, are being more cautious about corporate tactics. Though there are enough frameworks and regulations on climate change, the lack of unified political determination on the issue makes it more difficult to achieve, or even to implement. Here is where the public will take on the matter. Regardless of countless promises made by the governments, the increasing public demand through mass movements has made the governments prioritise climate change in their policies.
As one of the toughest challenges of the century, there has not been much progress in fighting climate change in past decades. Increasing population and developing economies have dramatically intensified the emission of greenhouse gases since 1990. However, there is still a division among the public on the issue due to a large indifference among the political leaders. Surprisingly, various polls conducted in different regions show that the number of people “very concerned” about climate change ranges from around 40% to 50% over a point a time. But this does not make people ignorant about the fact.
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According to TIME, the people of Latin America and Africa are very concerned about climate change since they are the most vulnerable to the phenomenon. In a recent study conducted by Pew Research Centre in 17 advanced countries, many people expressed their strong concern on climate change and its impact, their willingness to take action and change lifestyle for the better. They also voiced the need for the government’s active intervention on the issue, yet ideological difference remains as a hindrance for climate achievements.
In a time where climate change has become legislation, greenwashing up to now goes unchecked. Ahead of the COP26 conference, the Competitions and Marketing Authority of the UK gave the guidelines to the companies to end greenwashing practices by the end of the year. This is just one small step. As it gets new shapes in the coming years, stronger regulations are inevitable for curbing greenwashing.