Greenwashing is the climate's silent enemy. Here’s what to do about it.
Organic, sustainable and eco-friendly seem like interchangeable labels on the leggings, juices, vegetables and toothbrushes marketed to Canadians everyday. Contributor Maria Puscas argues that consumers need to be wary of the product labels that intentionally deceive well-intentioned people.
Maria Puscas, Contributor
For environmentalist Jay Westerveld, it all started with a towel station in the South Pacific. In the summer of 1983, Westerveld was an eager undergraduate student surfing in Fiji when he snuck into the nearby Beachcomber Resort to grab a towel. He came across a note asking customers to pick up their towels for ‘environmental reasons,’ a message which rang out as hypocritical to him.
“It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage,” Westerveld said in an interview with The Guardian. “It said something like, ‘Help us to help our environment’.”
The note’s hypocrisy took him aback. The popular destination for many was undergoing massive expansion to accommodate more tourists. Increased tourism was contributing to the mass destruction of coral reefs in the area, but the resort was not supporting nor facilitating any projects to protect coral reefs and the surrounding wildlife. And yet they considered towels to be the solution to their ecological problems. Westerveld ended up coining the term “greenwashing” in 1986 to describe a company or group’s deceptive claim that their products or policies are eco-friendly.
Today, many consumers are devoted to making environmentally-friendly choices where they can, but the efficacy of their choices is hindered by corporate greenwashing. Unfortunately, greenwashing marketing has become more and more prevalent in the fashion, food and even entertainment industries with corporations increasingly deceiving consumers.
The organic label is one way that consumers can be deceived into thinking they’re making sustainable choices. Since the 1990s, the food industry has seen a shift towards a consumer preference for organic produce. The marketing message of organic is that it’s good for your health and good for the environment. Yet the terms “organic” and “sustainable” mean vastly different things.
Organic in both Canada and the United States is defined as the practice of growing crops without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and genetic modification. It sounds healthy, and it sounds sustainable—but it’s a label that doesn’t require any guidelines on sustainable farming practices.
One of the crucial differences between organic and sustainably grown food is that organic food is given a government certification while sustainably grown isn’t certified with a label nor governed by official policy. Sustainable farming focuses on owning less land and growing diverse crops to better maximize land-use efficiency—a principle that “organic” doesn’t necessarily abide by. The Canadian standards don't contain quantitative limits on land use for organic certification, meaning an organic farm can own more land that’s not necessarily land-use efficient.
Organic farming—just like Big Agriculture—can compromise our climate trajectory if it’s not done sustainably. In fact, organic farming can produce greater CO2 emissions if land is deforested or cleared to make room for crops. We see a similar theme with energy and water use. The Canadian Organic Standards don’t require that farmers attempt to conserve water resources, and many farms (including organic farms) are still heavily reliant on non-renewable energy sources like petroleum.
The Canadian Organic Standards claim to focus on growing crops and livestock in ways that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment, but don’t outline quantitative rules regulating energy and water use. These vaguely defined statements allow many organic farms to get away with marketing their products as eco-friendly, even if their farming practices and plastic product packaging are not.
Transportation of product is also an issue. Many organic corporations—including the Organic Wholesale Club and Healthy Planet—ship internationally. The many kilometres that food has to travel from source to table generates significant greenhouse gas emissions caused by the planes and trucks that carry them.
In the food world, buying locally-grown foods from your local farmers markets, growing it yourself or looking for eco-friendly packaging are small things that can make a big difference—but they all require a lot more effort than simply buying organic.
Greenwashing isn’t just a problem in the agriculture sector. It also generates profit in the clothing industry. With the advent of fast-fashion, clothing has become cheaper to produce and to purchase. The average Canadian household is spending less money on clothes today than ten years ago, despite the fact that its overall expenditures have increased by $14,000.
Companies have been able to slash clothing prices by moving production overseas. Outsourcing labour lets large corporations such as H&M, Forever 21 and Nike pay their workers below living wages—often in inhumane working conditions—and use cheap, non-eco-friendly materials like polyester.
Sustainable clothing brands like Reformation, Orakilinen and Power of My People have worked diligently to ensure that green fabrics such as worked hemp, bamboo and silk are used in their products. Companies like these ensure that workers are paid fair wages. However, sustainable clothing comes at a price. Oftentimes, it's a pretty big one—high prices have created a niche sustainable clothing market whose products aren’t universally affordable.
Many have criticized sustainable clothing’s exclusivity and its failure to accommodate people of lower socioeconomic status. The criticisms have been heard by some companies that are trying to adapt their business models to make their clothing as accessible as possible. KOTN, a prominent sustainable clothing company, believes that cutting out the retailer and selling directly to consumers is the key to bringing sustainable fashion to a bigger audience.
Greenwashing has become particularly pervasive on social media in the form of celebrity endorsements. A number of public figures have used their large platforms to advocate for more sustainable practices among their followers, somewhat hypocritically. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner, who advocated swapping plastic straws for paper ones to her 175 million Instagram followers. Jenner’s straw-swap suggestion came one month before she used an emission-producing private jet to pick up her sister for dinner.
Many have felt outraged by this celebrity double standard, but it’s one commonly seen in the messaging of corporations and public figures. That’s because the majority of our climate burden doesn’t fall on the shoulders of individual consumers, but rather on the shoulders of irresponsible corporations. According to climatologist professor Kevin Anderson, 50 per cent of global emissions come from 10 per cent of the population.
We need to hold this 10 per cent accountable. One of the ways we can do so is by keeping wary of greenwashing tactics. Buying locally greatly reduces CO2 emissions released during garment transport and is an easy way to support local businesses.
Buying second-hand clothing and swapping clothes with friends or strangers on apps and websites can help you revamp your wardrobe and lower your ecological footprint. When it comes to fashion, no solution is 100 per cent sustainable, but consumer actions can make a difference in the larger battle against climate inaction.
The bottom line is that we need to recognize greenwashing marketing tactics of non-green corporations and hold public figures in power accountable for doing the same.
We can combat greenwashing by being wary of eco-friendly labels. We can reduce our ecological footprint by investing in locally grown food as much as possible, shopping less or second-hand, trying to limit emissions and demanding change from powerful institutions.
After all, greenwashing and climate action go hand-in-hand. If we fall prey to the guise of greenwashing but forget to demand policy changes, our chances at a sustainable future and a globally low carbon footprint are slim.