Growing concern amongst consumers with regard to making ethical purchases has highlighted businesses as some of the most influential entities impacting the global climate crisis. Small and large companies alike have a responsibility to manufacture and sell products and services that uphold environmental standards. The spotlight of sustainability has been cast on business, bringing with it terminology such as greenwashing and greenhushing in order to recognize a need for accountability. What exactly do these words mean?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing can be defined as when businesses market inaccurate or misleading information regarding the sustainability of their products or services. Although greenwashing can be implemented in a variety of forms, the most commonly identified types are referred to as the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”, which are outlined below.
- The Sin of Hidden Trade-Offs: A company’s claim suggests that a product or service is environmentally friendly based on a minimal set of attributes that disregard the fact that a ‘green’ product or service has its own resultant environmental consequences
- The Sin of No Proof: A company’s claim is not supported by substantial evidence or by official certification.
- The Sin of Vagueness: A company’s claim utilizes broad terminology that implies sustainability and is likely to be misunderstood by the customer.
- The Sin of Irrelevance: A company’s environmental claim is truthful but unrelated to the sustainability of a specific product which can leave customers confused and easily convinced to purchase a product or service.
- The Sin of Fibbing: A company makes environmental claims that are entirely untrue.
- The Sin of Worshipping False Labels: A company uses words or image symbols which indicate that a product or service has been certified for sustainability by a third-party endorsement which in reality does not exist.
- The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: A company makes a claim which may be accurate within the product classification that distracts the customer from the broader environmental impacts of the market.
Greenwashing ranges from subtle to blatantly deceiving, but either way is a harmful advertising method that deserves recognition in order for companies to be held accountable.
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
Companies employ greenwashing techniques to promote products or services as appealing to the environmentally-conscious consumer, a description that is becoming applicable to a growing population of buyers amidst the global climate crisis. Claims of sustainability for products and services help companies grow in popularity on the market and establish a competitive advantage over rival businesses. Amidst increasing pressure from both the public and government for large companies to reduce their environmental impact and align their production values with a global need to reduce greenhouse emissions, businesses have a growing temptation to utilize tactics of greenwashing. Growing public awareness of environmental threats caused by human action furthermore presents an opportunity for companies to exploit this expanding consumer base.
How Can Consumers Spot Greenwashing?
Question Vague Terminology
What exactly does a company mean by “eco-friendly”? Conscious consumers can inquire with hotels, restaurants, retail stores, or experiential businesses regarding specific green practices from sourcing to production to sale. Furthermore, increase your awareness of changes in branding, as this can be a common sign of companies attempting to greenwash. Businesses often repackage their products or rebrand their services with environmentally-friendly buzzwords, natural colors, and sustainable symbols.
When traveling, local business owners understand the culture, products, community, and ethical activities best. Big-name global brands and an eco-label stamp of approval don’t necessarily mean sustainable practices. Take the opportunity to immerse yourself directly in your destination and inquire with local businesses about their environmental efforts. Although small businesses tend not to be able to achieve official environmental accreditation due to economic constraints and international demands, this does not imply that these companies have disregarded ‘going green’, and often a tourist can learn the most through personal, engaged conversation.
Care and Share
Share your eco-tourism experiences with friends, family, or anyone in your network to spread first-hand knowledge about ethical experiences, accommodations, and businesses. Taking the time to understand your impact and the environmental impact of the businesses you support can help inform others’ travels and move tourism toward becoming a more sustainable industry.
Companies Caught Greenwashing
Banana Boat Sunscreen
Banana Boat sunscreens marketed as “Reef Friendly” were found to contain ingredients harmful to coral reefs and other marine life, and the company was charged with greenwashing and misleading consumers. Banana Boat Sunscreen products included both avobenzone and octocrylene, two toxic chemicals that cause coral bleaching and negatively impact the reproduction of coral reefs. As a result of the company’s deceptive claims, Hawaii banned Banana Boat Sunscreen from being sold in the state due to the environmental damage inflicted by the product’s ingredients.
The travel search engine Orbitz launched an eco-tourism website in 2007 intended to provide sustainable accommodation recommendations. However, the company allowed hotels to submit themselves for membership based on the minimal requirement of achieving just one of four criteria: use sustainably produced energy, provide organic linens or bath products, contribute a portion of profits to an environmental organization, or install devices to save water or electricity. The company was criticized for its insufficient hotel vetting process in addition to the issue of Orbitz relying on hotels’ marketing materials to determine achievement of criteria, a potentially unreliable source.
Ryanair was accused of greenwashing in 2019 when the airline ran an ad campaign claiming it was “Europe’s lowest fares, lowest emissions airline”. The airline, which was named one of Europe’s top 10 carbon emitters in 2018, presented a chart to the Advertising Standards Authority which utilized data from 2011 to make a claim in 2019. The ASA also added that “some well-known airlines did not appear on the chart”, and therefore the comparative measurement was inadequate. The ads produced by Ryanair were subsequently banned due to misleading customers and failing to substantiate environmental claims.
What is Greenhushing?
Greenhushing is the opposite of greenwashing, and can be defined as when companies underreport their sustainability practices to both consumers and stakeholders. Greenhushing is especially common in the tourism sector; In fact, a 2016 survey of 2,000 hotels in 44 countries revealed that only 48% of hotels had a page dedicated to sustainability on their website. Small businesses are the most common culprits of greenhushing because small businesses are usually omitted from sustainability reporting legislation that instead tends to focus on large, public sector companies.
Why Do Companies Greenhush?
The primary incentive which motivates companies to greenhush is fear of criticism for not prioritizing sustainability or taking significant environmental action. Simultaneously, businesses fear accusations of greenwashing which has the potential to irreversibly alter the reputation of a company. In terms of small businesses, the certification process to verify the legitimacy of a company’s sustainability claims can be both expensive and time-consuming, especially considering international demands. The subsequent lack of certification discourages small businesses from reporting their sustainability initiatives due to undermined confidence and minimal verification to present to the consumer.
While conscious consumption implies purchasing ethically sourced and responsibly made products, it is also important to recognize the positive environmental impact of buying fewer things. The increased emphasis on the business practice of greenwashing exposes the fact that companies can mislead consumers in the interest of profit. Simultaneously greenhushing may be indicative of a company’s lack of transparency or prioritization of environmental efforts. The combination of holding businesses accountable while decreasing consumption could be the action ‘dream team’ for sustainability.
Want to learn more?
Greenwashing and Greenhushing: The Importance of Balance – Waggle Dancers
Have You Heard of Greenhushing? – Medium
Greenhushing – Small99
What is greenwashing? – Sustain Life
What is Greenwashing? – Ethical Consumer
Earth Day 2021: Companies Accused of Greenwashing – Truth in Advertising
Ryanair Accused of Greenwash Over Carbon Emissions Claim – The Guardian