These days, sustainability is the new sexy. From plastic bag bans and carbon neutral commitments, to eco-friendly packaging, businesses big and small are keen to get consumers on side and pledge their allegiance to environmental change. But with every step towards a cleaner, greener future, there are companies who want to take advantage. That’s where the term “greenwashing” comes in, and the first stage of learning to avoid it is being able to identify it in action.
- to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is
Greenwashing is the commercial practice of making misleading or downright false sustainability claims to cover up a questionable environmental track record. A play on the phrase “to whitewash”, it’s when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” or forward thinking rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is.
This type of sales-driven sugar-coating may just sound like another form of corporate greed or a bit of advertising artistic license, but the consequences of allowing it to continue are harmful, and frankly, irresponsible.
A good illustration of greenwashing, is the kind of publicity enforced by bottled water companies. They all tend to overcharge and under deliver, capitalising on their consumers’ weakness for convenience and spin. Despite what the label says, there are really only two types of bottled water: filtered purified water which comes from local sources (aka plain old tap water), and natural spring water. The downside of the industry far outweighs the good, from toxic plastic packaging that will take many years to degrade in landfill or end up as a choking hazard in the ocean, to even tooth decay as a result of often not adding fluoride.
Fiji Water, for example, ship their products across the world and use taglines like "Earth's Finest Water” and "created entirely by nature.” Meanwhile, in the real world, almost half of the population of Fiji don’t have access to clean water. Their false claims have led to lawsuits, including for deceptively marketing themselves as “carbon-negative” and a countersuit against their own brand ambassador, a model dubbed the “Fiji Water Girl”.
Earlier this year, South Korean brand Innisfree were accused of greenwashing, following the discovery that a paper bottle product launched as part of their so-called eco-drive was actually just a plastic bottle wrapped in paper. Innisfree had to apologise, putting it down to confusing messaging saying “we overlooked the fact that the entire container can be recognised as a paper material because of the product name”. You don’t say?!
Consumers, however, are smarter than big businesses give them credit for, and there’s a growing momentum towards supporting genuinely green companies and calling out companies who pretend to be by looking a little deeper into every claim. Many high-profile climate crusaders and environmental organisations have made outing companies for false advertising as part of their larger mission. Cases include Greenpeace’s 2009 Stop Greenwash campaign, H&M’s scam Conscious Collection and teen activist Greta Thunberg’s slamming of fast fashion.
- to tout a business or organization's commitment to social responsibilities and to use this perception for public relations and economic gain
- to present a humanitarian front in this manner
Similar to greenwashing, “bluewashing” is a more general appearance of do-gooding when a company pretends to follow The Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact. The name literally refers to the colour of the UN logo.
So, not specific to environmental concerns, bluewashing is essentially the illusion of thorough and admirable social and ethical practices, such as labour conditions and human rights. Going back to the idea of fast fashion, where greenwashing is concerned with the messaging around the sustainability and the manufacturing of the clothes, bluewashing looks more at the human side and how workers are treated and paid.
Many of the clothes we consume are cheaply made and cheaply priced to benefit buyers at the expense of the employees who are often made up of child laborers or sweatshop slaves. It may be 2021, but there is still a bunch of brands and morally corrupt companies who commit casual exploitation.
UK retailer ASOS has no transparency and has made very little progress over the years to improve the conditions of its workforce. American chain Aeropostale say they defend human rights, but are known for having children work in their Asian cotton farms. Disneyland may be called “The Happiest Place On Earth", but the brand is no stranger to human rights violations. Their merchandise of mass production and mass consumption are made in sweatshops made up of children and oppressed Chinese workers, usually forced to do x3 times the amount of work they ought to.
On the other end of the scale (thankfully) there are many big companies who are striving – and achieving – fairness such Puma, Patagonia, and Levi’s. In their corner are organisations determined to keep the bastards honest, so to speak, including Oxfam and Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), ensuring that all of the people involved receive award wages and conditions.
Bluewashing can also crossover in to how ocean conservation messages can be distorted and misrepresented. Sportswear conglomerate Adidas conducts bluewashing on multiple levels. Infamous for their use of sweatshops, their garments also undergo chemical treatments to check durability, flexibility, and water-resistance. The process destroys ecosystems and marine life, pollutes water, and even endangers the health of the workers doing it. Netflix’s Seaspiracy documentary, for example, unveiled the devastating impacts of commercial fishing and coined the term “blood shrimp” – when seafood is tainted by slave labour and human rights abuses.
What to look out for
Here at People4Ocean, we are upfront about our reef-safe missions, ambitions and carbon neutral targets. When it comes to sunscreens, ingredients never lie, so finding out the full list is a good way to assess whether a product is good for your skin and good for the planet. Sunscreen labels should disclose what the product contains, whether it is on the packaging or on the website. A brand that is not 100% transparent about its ingredients may be hiding something. Bluewashing in the sun care world is when a chemical sunscreen brand calls its product reef-safe just by excluding Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, while still containing other chemical filters such as Avobenzone, Octocrylene, Octisalate, and Homosalate.
We recommend not basing your purchasing decisions on marketing messages. Ways to avoid greenwashing and bluewashing include focusing on facts and tangible evidence, such as ingredient lists, manufacturing processes (locally or ethically made) and a brand’s actual actions and history in lessening their impact on the environment. To start, it can be as easy as turning the bottle around for a minute and reading the small print or looking for a recycling symbol!
They say if it’s too good to be true, it probably is, so some simple steps to remember when trying to avoid greenwashing and bluewashing is to:
- Look into a company’s history
- Trust those who are transparent about their efforts over those who don’t disclose
- Be wary of exaggerated claims on the capability or performance of a product
- Look for evidence to back up claims
- Check the pricing matches the product