Updated: Oct 18, 2021
As someone who cares about the environment, I try my best to shop from environmentally-friendly fashion stores. Only later did I realize that some of my favorite fashion stores like H&M, Uniqlo, and LuluLemon do not abide by their word of being environmentally-friendly and instead use a marketing strategy called greenwashing.
Greenwashing is the practice of companies selling their products and launching adverts under the false pretense that their services are environment-friendly. In other words, it is a devious tactic for companies to hide the environmentally-detrimental aspects of their products, so the public is encouraged to purchase the product. Hence, greenwashing is unethical.
History of Greenwashing
The term ‘greenwash’ was invented in 1986. Jay Westerveld, an undergraduate student, went on a research trip and visited the Beachcomber Resort. While he was there, he saw a note that asked customers to pick up towels. The note explained how reusing these towels would help preserve clean oceans and reefs, and reduce ecological damage. The resort ended the note with the statement, “Help us to help our environment.”
The note’s irony struck the student because while the resort claimed to be protecting the ecosystem, the resort was also in the middle of expanding. Three years later, in 1986, the student wrote a term paper about how companies portray themselves as environmentally-friendly for marketing purposes. While writing this paper, Westerveld coined the term ‘greenwash.’
While greenwashing as a term did not surface until later, one of the earliest examples of its use dates back to 1969 when the Westinghouse Electric Corporation launched a nuclear power division to provide electricity. After the rise of the 1960’s anti-nuclear movement, a social movement that questioned nuclear’s safety and environmental-friendliness, Westinghouse was forced by the public to abolish the division. However, the company was able to fight the public’s hate by producing a series of advertisements that proclaimed nuclear power plants to be safe for the environment
The company successfully persuaded the public to use Westinghouse electricity for a short time. But following two nuclear meltdowns in Michigan and Idaho, people began to realize that the Westinghouse Electric Corporation’s use of nuclear power divisions was not as environmentally safe and sound as promised.
Soon after, numerous other companies engaged in greenwashing. The most famous example is Chevron’s People Do campaign. Chevron, an oil company, commissioned a series of advertisements to broadcast its environmental dedication. However, while the company ran its infamous campaign, it was also actively violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.
Unfortunately, Chevron was not the only corporation making outrageous environmental claims. Other companies like DuPont, a chemical company, claimed to be environment-friendly while being the largest corporate polluter in the U.S. in 1991.
Why Greenwashing is Unethical
Greenwashing prevents people from acting sustainably. If companies sell themselves as eco-friendly, then people will be inclined to support the company, but if these claims turn out to be false, then those people may be accidentally contributing to environmental harm.
For example, in 2008, a Malaysian palm oil company claimed that its oil plantations provide a home to native plants. In reality, these plantations help cause deforestation and habitat loss. Therefore, anyone who bought this palm oil inadvertently had an adverse impact on the environment.
Similarly, forestry giant Weyerhaeuser broadcasted advertisements that showed care for fish, even when the company was destabilizing salmon habitats.
Greenwashing Ultimately Hurts the Companies that Practice It
Greenwashing not only encourages environmental unsustainability but also destroys company reputations. If customers find out a company is involved in greenwashing, they may discourage other consumers from buying the company’s products, damaging that business’ image.
For example, in 2018, Volkswagen was discovered to have cars designed with software that gave false readings in emissions tests. Their advertisements portrayed their cars to be low in producing air pollution, but unfortunately, the ads were false, and the company’s cars were hurting the environment. In fact, Volkswagen even admitted to cheat emission tests in 11 million vehicles. Some of these cars, when tested on the road, emitted almost 40 times the permitted level of nitrogen oxides, a hazardous chemical for the atmosphere. Greenwashing ruined the company’s reputation. Eventually, Martin Winterkorn, the CEO of Volkswagen at the time, apologized and accepted responsibility for the scandal.
There are many other reasons why greenwashing is harmful: it decreases a company’s profits, it encourages skepticism, and many more. Overall, however, greenwashing hurts the environment and the companies that use this tactic. Therefore, greenwashing must be stopped.