Greenwashing is a term that most of us are familiar with, but do we know exactly what it means? Is it getting better or worse in 2023? and how did Green evolve into Blue, Pink & Social?
In this episode we will answer all these questions and talk about what you can do as a consumer, or as a company, to avoid and/or not support these ....er...colourful...practices.
This podcast is brought to you by The Digital Distillery
Written by Ara Almada
Produced & Engineered by Phil McDowell
Executive Producer Nadia Koski
Project Managers Dennis Kirschner & Stefanie Leonardi
Hello and welcome back to another episode of Green About Media, where we dig into the environmental impact of the digital world, looking at what that impact actually is, and what does and doesn’t work in terms of trying to reduce it.
Now the last two episodes we looked at some of the good things. The hopeful and helpful innovations that are beginning to take place in the industry, to help organisations effectively reduce their carbon footprint. Things like the new Carbon Intelligence industry which has cropped up in response to the spending shift across, well all industries, toward carbon reduction.
However, it’s not all sunshine and moonbeams. Surprise Suprise, when there is money involved, there are going to be people who take advantage of it for their own financial gain. Today we are going to look at Greenwashing, which is term likely familiar to most people but also Blue washing, pink washing, and Social washing. What are they? How do they differ? And are they getting better or worse in 2023.
So let's first look at the definitions.
Greenwashing is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits or friendliness of a product or service. It can be a way for companies to continue or expand their polluting behaviors, all while gaming the system or profiting off well-intentioned, sustainably minded consumers.
Most people are likely familiar with Green washing as this term has been around for quite a while, companies claiming that their coffee, shampoo or their advertising campaign for that matter, is eco-friendly or carbon compensated when in actual fact, or at least when viewed in actual and not only ‘technical’ terms, simply isn’t.
The impact of this is that consumers are misled into thinking they are making and environmentally responsible purchase decision, when in fact their decision makes no difference or worse, actually contributes to environmental degradation.
Companies often heavily rely on what are called “carbon offsets” to zero out their own emissions. In theory these are commitments to take an action that reduces carbon emissions elsewhere, like paying to conserve carbon-rich land that otherwise would’ve been developed. But not only are the climate benefits of offsets not guaranteed—a “conserved” forest could be lost to an unexpected wildfire, for instance—there simply isn’t enough land available to allow everyone that plans to rely on offsets to do so. Or worse still, some companies have even been known to strike deals with landowners to sell them ‘protection’ of a forest that was never in danger of being cut down in the first place or to just delay it for a year or too.
Without first changing polluting practices, these net-zero pledges can often just be a form of greenwashing.
To be fair, carbon offsets or carbon compensation can be an important intermediary step in improving carbon emissions, but it should probably be treated exactly as that. A practice to get started on quickly while you put in the hard yards to implement more significant changes.
A famous example of greenwashing is that of the case that arguably popularised the awareness of greenwashing in the first place in 2010 when Nestle was again dragged into the dodgy spotlight. In this example, the company is question had been advertising their instant coffee as sustainably ‘sourced’ and ‘fair trade’, terms that were beginning to rise in popularity as consumers starting being more conscious of their purchase choices. Nestle were also using images of rainforests and wildlife as marketing tactics to further promote their sustainable image.
Suffice to say that their practices were not at all sustainable or fair trade and they were pulled up by advocacy group Corporate Accountability International and subsequently taken to court.
The case was eventually settled out of court, with Nestle required to make changes to its marketing practices and to provide clearer information about the environmental impact of its coffee sourcing practices.
So not much more than a slap on the wrist and a ‘do-better’ finger wag, but politically, the impact was wider reaching.
The case received widespread media attention and sparked a larger conversation about greenwashing in the food and beverage industry. It also led to increased scrutiny of environmental claims made by other companies and pressure for more transparency and accountability in the industry.
So one thing that did come out of this case way back then is that even if you can escape legal consequences from greenwashing, you can risk a lot of backlash from consumers, and they ultimately are generally the ones putting dollars in your pocket.
It also underscores the importance of being vigilant and critical when it comes to evaluating environmental claims made by companies and deciding where to spend your money.
In addition to these vague or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or using nature or wildlife imagery to give the impression of environmentally friendly, other Greenwashing tactics companies have been known to use include, making claims about recycled or biodegradable materials that aren’t backed up by evidence or using certifications or labels that are not independently verified or have low standards.
So that's Greenwashing, a lot of which is generally known about by the public in part due to the Nestle scandal in 2010. But more recently blue washing, pink washing and social washing are relatively newer terms that aren’t as well known but have evolved out of the greenwashing idea. So here they are. Blue washing refers to the practice of businesses to sign up for the UN Global Compact and use their association with the United Nations to enhance their image and shift attention from their controversial business practices.
The United Nations created their UN Global Compact program at the turn of the century supposedly to bring corporations onboard for the Millennial Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals. If a company uses their UNGC participation to market a product, but you can’t find any further evidence to show that they are being socially responsible, then they may be bluewashing.
Social washing refers to corporations who are wrongfully trying to market themselves as socially conscious. The may do this through the liberal use of the fairtrade label and/or using marketing imagery of happy families and farmers for example. In these cases management typically misleads the public by falsely claiming that they are focused on the wellbeing of all their stakeholders and supply chain, without actually doing anything to support these claims. And then there is the newest of the lot, pinkwashing.
Seeing the world through rose-colored glasses is usually a positive thing – but not in the case of pinkwashing. Only in this case we’re not talking about sustainability but rather gender equality and people’s right to freely determine their sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBTQ+ rights have given corporations another avenue for practicing their shady marketing and public relations techniques. It has become quite common to see companies lining up for sponsoring LGBTQ+ pride events while at the same time doing nothing to make the lives of their LGBTQ+ identifying employees easier at work.
Clothing manufacturers H&M and Levi’s also caused a stir a few years ago when they brought out exclusive, colorful garments as part of their “Pride collections” to promote solidarity with alternatively oriented people. However, they were producing these garments in countries where homosexuality was still illegal until only recently or still is today, for example Bangladesh and India.
Claiming that you’re ‘tolerant’ (with heavy air quotes and even in a good light the bare minimum) without taking any action, or exaggerated and stereotypical portrayals of alternatively oriented people can, and arguably should, spark outrage. Marketers therefore need a lot of tact when developing campaigns that aim to show solidarity with LGBTQ+ groups. It is an incredibly sensitive subject that needs to be thoughtfully addressed.
So the question is, since people are becoming more aware of these colour washing practices, are things improving? Have organisations realised that it's not worth the brief and superficial gain of saying you are doing something your market deems important, only to get busted and lose that trust almost immediately.
You’d think so wouldn’t you?
But although there have certainly been huge improvement in the way some company’s communicate and act upon their environmental and social responsibility, the reality is that as these issues are deemed more and more important by the public it large, it has led to companies increasing their use of these colourwashing tactics at an attempt to differentiate themselves in an increasingly crowded market.
On top of this there is still a lack of strong regulation and enforcement mechanisms to help prevent these tactics from governments and regulatory bodies which allows companies to make these false claims without facing any, at least, legal backlash and so regulation really needs to happen in order to get these practices under control.
So, we still have a long way to go but, there is hope. And you for your part, as a company or as a consumer should just, take responsibility for your actions. As a consumer, be more vigilant and demand greater transparency and accountability from companies. As a company, put in the resources and effort to make real and effective changes to your practices and be transparent about it. In the end, as things continue to develop, it will pay off. And as governments and regulatory bodies, take stronger action to prevent and punish these kinds of claims.
The solution to ‘colour washing’ is simple: be responsible, be transparent, and communicate accordingly. After all, regardless of the organisation's size or purpose, any perceived 'bad behaviour' will eventually come out in the wash.
Thank you all for being with today for another Episode of Green about Media and do get in touch with us even if its just to say g’day. We love hearing from you and your input on the show and the topics you want to hear about. You can hit us up ob the socials under the digital distillery, email email@example.com or go to the website.
Thanks to Ara Almada for her insight and fact checking today, Nadia Koski for being a wonderful executive producer, and Dennis Kirschner and Stefanie Leonardi for leading the whole project. I have been your host Phil McDowell and I look forward to seeing you on the next episode of Green About Media, brought to you by The Digital Distillery.