By Joya Kemper

With the rise in ‘greening’ activities, so too the public debate about the notion of ‘greenwashing’ is on the increase. Joya Kemper looks at this growing global issue.

We can’t continue to consume, pillage and pollute the earth. Put simply, if everyone consumed like the United States, we’d need four more planets to sustain ourselves.

The good news is that the public is becoming increasingly aware of the crisis we face. Companies know this and have responded. Further good news according to TerraChoice is the huge increase in green products – up 75 percent in 2009 to 2010 alone. The not so good news is that up to 95 percent may not be as ‘green’ as they claim.

Coined in 1984 by Jay Westervelt, ‘greenwashing’ now stands for the negligible, misleading or false environmental claims, and more recently, social impacts of business activities.

It is based on a business ideology run on short-term profits, negative effects on human and natural life, with a thirst for continual and perpetual (economic) growth, while at the same time seeing the need, for reasons of either reputation or profit, to ‘sell’ themselves as green. Most green activities are often negligible.

Indeed businesses frequently spend more money on advertising their green impacts than they actually spend on helping society.

According to Greenpeace, other tactics include loudly voicing proactive environmental and social stances when in actual fact these activities are regulated by law, or emphasising environmental activities while continuing to implement a business model focused on non-sustainable activities or products.

Businesses might even use labels such as ‘natural’ or ‘green’, or create their own ‘sustainable’ labels, when these are not backed up by any evidence. There are also companies advertising a pro-environmental stance while lobbying and funding politicians to oppose environmental regulation.

Greenwashing is a rational and logical way of dealing with environmental and social impacts from the perspective of a profit-centric ideology. The premise which underpins greenwashing stems from two mainstream but flawed ideas.

Contrary to most business rhetoric, climate change and our rapidly depleting ecosystem mean we can’t consume our way out of the problem.

We need products that are truly designed cradle-to-cradle, rather than cradle-to-grave, whereby products (and the various components of products) are either able to decompose into soil or are made from synthetic materials which can be continuously reused in the same products.

If we don’t have a mentality which revolves around zero waste for all products, then producing ‘green’ shampoo or ‘green’ clothing while generic, unsustainable products are still available hardly responds to the call for real action.

It also places sole responsibility (and blame) on consumers to buy green. The reality is that despite polls which demonstrate the majority of consumers would buy green, this is usually not translated into action.

This is understandable given most green products are more expensive than their counterparts, especially in an environment where our wages, especially in New Zealand, have been stagnating for years, and consumers presume performance trade-offs still exist.

Change starts with everyone taking equal responsibility and that includes consumers. We must take responsibility to consume less (another idea rarely translated in the mainstream sustainable consumption discourse), to consume more sustainably and responsibly, and to buy only from companies which hold these values in place.

Governments must take real action to demand sustainable practices from companies and to put in place infrastructure to incentivise sustainable production and consumption.

And corporations must take real action to confront their impacts on society, on people and the planet, beyond the ‘business-case’ for sustainability; profit, reputation or seeing climate change as a business opportunity.

However, this calls for a change in thinking, in ideology and in business models. As Einstein wisely said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.”

It’s not all bad news. We are seeing an increased uptake of new business models such as social enterprise and B-Corps which have values and the objective of solving environmental and social problems at their core.

For example, in New Zealand, Eat My Lunch has a social mission to provide a child with free lunch with each lunch purchase. Making a profit, providing jobs, products and contributing to the economy does not have to come at the expense of anyone or anything.

Not all traditional businesses are big, evil corporations set on a path to destroy the planet. But we must evolve past the self-interested, selfcentred, money-hungry producer and consumer. We must move beyond the homo economicus. Hollywood star Julia Roberts as Mother Nature in a clip from ‘The Nature is Speaking’ initiative beautifully and succinctly says, “I am prepared to evolve.

Are you?”

This article was originally published in the August edition of UniNEWS and was republished with permission. 

Joya Kemper is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in sustainability in marketing. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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