Hey readers! In today’s blog, instead of discussing a new trend in sustainability as per usual, I’ve decided to tackle the topic of greenwashing. Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, greenwashing is the intentional marketing of a product as sustainable when it actually isn’t. Now that sustainability has become trendy, greenwashing can be used to lure in environmentally-conscious consumers to improve profits. However, the origins of the practice were actually to cover up for unsustainable environmental practices within a company.
According to The Guardian, far before the term was popularized, Westinghouse’s nuclear power division, an energy-producing company now known as Westinghouse Electric, was one of the first cases of greenwashing. Questioning nuclear power’s impression of the environment, the anti-nuclear movement of the 1960s threatened their economic productivity. In response to this, the company released a series of advertisements featuring nuclear power plants in natural, open-aired surroundings. The subtlety of the alfresco settings in these ads indicated that the nuclear plants were not harmful to the environment.
According to the Pegasus Legal Register, as the term came about in the 1980s, Chevron was another of the first companies to greenwash their products. While the company produced advertisements featuring their employees protecting wildlife like butterflies and bears, they were actually violating the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act through an unlawful amount of pollution, like spilling oil into wildlife areas which they claimed to preserve. According to the Guardian, those ads were so effective, though, that they won an Effie Advertising award and became the subject of an advertising case study at Harvard Business school.
Now, about 60 years later, the world has seen this phenomenon escalate, with Volkswagen, Ben & Jerry’s, Walmart and thousands many more companies using greenwashing to their advantage.
In my first blog, I talked about how the production of metal straws actually adds to the Earth’s carbon footprint and makes just as bad of an environmental impact as plastic straws. This is a form of greenwashing in and of itself, but greenwashing in the straw industry does not stop there.
When eating out, you may have noticed the compostable plastic straws that come with your drinks. I remember being out with my mom (who is notorious in my family for hating paper straws) when she first was introduced to them. She was so excited that she didn’t have to suffer through the torture that is a paper straw — no more disintegrated paper in her mouth. However, her excitement was short-lived. These straws are actually useless in Sarasota, as in many cities across the world, because most cities do not have access to a compost center. So, the “compostable” straws end up in the same landfills as normal plastic straws.
So, what can we do? In two separate ways, we need to spread awareness about greenwashing. Even though the practice is so common, few people are aware of it. So firstly, be aware of and avoid greenwashed products. If something seems like it’s too good to be true, conduct some research. And after finding out that a product is greenwashed, spread the word.
The second thing one can do to spread awareness is lobby for laws against greenwashing. California passed legislation prohibiting plastic companies from marketing their products as biodegradable after three companies were sued for falsely claiming their water bottles were 100 percent biodegradable. If these regulations were to spread beyond the state, it would greatly reduce the negative environmental impact companies produce through greenwashing.
Photo provided by oneplanet-sustainability.org