Avoid Grey Area

GREENWASHING, carbon washing, climate disinformation

A Guide to Greenwashing & Carbon Washing

What Is Greenwashing?

“Greenwashing” is a typical marketing strategy used to make things appear more environmentally friendly than they actually are. It is simply a method of persuading customers that a firm is making beneficial environmental decisions, frequently using eco-conscious language aimed to persuade buyers that the product is more natural, healthful, or free of toxins than rivals.

Greenwashing is making a comeback as public worry grows about climate change, pollution, habitat damage, and species extinction, so do misleading assurances about preserving the earth.

Terms like “sustainable,” “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and “circular” are frequently appearing in media and even design events.  The majority of the assertions are ambiguous. 

The issue is that these concepts are not well understood and, in some cases, have never been clearly defined. As a result, they are vulnerable to abuse, both unintentional and intentional.

Greenwashing's Impact on Decarbonization

Greenwashing might sound harmless, but the reality is far worse. One problem is that it confuses the public and distracts from authentic initiatives. The worldwide effort to decrease atmospheric carbon is distracted by ambiguous terminology and misleading statements.

Not all companies practice greenwashing maliciously. Often, it’s as much a misunderstanding on the marketers’ end as it is for customers. Even so, unintentional greenwashing still spreads false information about what it takes to be sustainable and can convince well-meaning customers to make bad choices.

The new greenwashing is carbon washing. The growing concern about climate change has resulted in an increase in the number of firms making dubious claims that they are tackling the issue.

Phrases like “climate neutral,” “carbon negative,” “net-zero,” and “offsetting” are casually tossed about, replacing buzzwords like “biodegradable,” “compostable,” “circular,” and “ocean plastic” that were popular a few years ago.

Today, many firms appear to have shifted tactics, abandoning their plastic anxiety in favour of climate awareness. The new carbon vocabulary is intended to convey the idea that new buildings and goods have no impact on atmospheric carbon, or even contribute to reduce it.

The Misuse of "Offsetting"

To be considered net-zero, all of these emissions must sum up to zero. Because eradicating embodied carbon emissions is exceedingly difficult, offset programmes that actively remove carbon from the atmosphere are permitted to make up the difference.

However, the phrase “offsetting” is frequently misused. It has become a get-out-of-jail-free card that can be used to make even the most polluting business seem environmentally good.

Offsetting frequently entails unethical transactions, such as paying someone else to produce fewer emissions than they would have otherwise, or convincing someone not to tear down a forest.


What Does Greenwashing Look Like?

Companies often highlight positive environmental facts about their products while intentionally avoiding any mention of the negative. For example, an auto manufacturer might praise a vehicle's fuel efficiency while ignoring the environmentally destructive mining practices involved in producing its lithium battery.

It's standard practice for brands to draw attention to a minor positive action that does little to change its overall environmental footprint. Oil companies donating Dawn dish soap to clean infected animals after their own product spills in the ocean is one example.

Brands may advertise a new change as green while ignoring its negative effects. For example, Starbucks introduced straw-free lids to avoid wasting plastic, but these new lids used more plastic than before.

The company may make claims about its eco-friendliness ("made with organic materials!") without sharing certifications or other evidence to back them up.

Brands can greenwash by making broad statements filled with buzzwords about their sustainability that are too vague to mean anything. Examples include 'new and improved, 'non-toxic,' and 'made with biodegradable materials.' Or, the package around a plastic toy might be labeled "recyclable" without making it clear whether it's referring to the package, the toy, or minor components of either.

Companies greenwash products by making claims that are technically true but irrelevant to their environmental impact. Examples are a paper company that boasts its products contain "all-natural materials" (most paper does) or an aerosol spray advertised as "CFC-free" (CFCs have been illegal in the US since 1978). This can also apply to trash bags labeled "recyclable," as the entire purpose of these bags is to end up in the trash. The label implies an environmental benefit that would only be realized if users emptied their trash bags, rinsed them out, and then added them to the recycling after use.

Reporting is not a proxy for progress. Measurement is often non-standard, incomplete, impreicse and misleading.

Many brands hide behind meaningless "greenspeak" that sounds impressive but doesn't have any official weight behind it. Examples include phrases like "made with natural ingredients" instead of showing USDA organic certification or saying "vegan approved" instead of showing the product is PETA-certified vegan.

Greenwashing companies may use phrases that, while technically true, give the consumer a skewed perception of the products they are buying. For example, an apparel company may state its shirts are "now made with 50% more recycled fibers" when increasing the amount from 2% to 3% of the total garment. True, but overstated as a benefit.

Sometimes, all it takes to greenwash is to market products in visually pleasing packaging. A tissue company might adorn its box with green leaves to imply the paper was harvested sustainably without mentioning that fact on the packaging. Some brands go so far as to incorporate small images that look like official logos for environmental certifications but are actually meaningless.


How to Avoid Carbon Washing

How can you determine which organizations are following the pathway of net-zero aspirations and which are guilty of carbon washing? There are a few questions to ask for to detect when are they simply carbon washing:

1. Are Net-Zero by 2050 is their only plan?

Many of the big shifts that must occur require time, and without clear interim objectives, organizations may be unable to implement changes rapidly enough. And, if organization leadership changes, the corporation may subsequently declare that meeting the net-zero target is no longer feasible.

2. What is their definition of net-zero?

Organizations and companies uses different terms to describe net-zero. The public may be confused by the mix of terms, but an even greater difficulty is the disparity in how corporations measure their carbon emissions. When some businesses claim to be striving towards net zero emissions, they are solely referring to emissions generated directly by their own activities. Some oil corporations, for example, aim for net zero emissions at oil and gas wells but fail to account for the far higher quantity of emissions caused by consumers actually using the fuel. If businesses do not consider the complete effect of their products and services, including these so-called “Scope 3” emissions, the world will not be able to solve climate change.

3. Are they cutting emissions as much and as fast as possible?

 Some businesses find it more difficult to reduce emissions than others. Shifting to renewable energy has a significant impact on a tech firm with a carbon footprint that is mostly dependent on power usage. Others have emissions that are more difficult to reduce, such as the cement industry, which produces more greenhouse gases than most nations combined; the emissions originate from both the combustion of fuel and the chemical process of creating cement. However, solutions for things like cement may be available shortly. For the first time, new technology allows large industrial operations to run on renewable energy. Pollution from cement facilities may be absorbed and stored in cement. Every organisation must prepare for net zero emissions by knowing what technological and systemic solutions are present, what is viable in the future, and how their business model should alter if emissions cannot be eliminated. Some fossil fuel corporations, for example, are now totally shifting away from fossil fuels.

4. What kind of offsets are they using?

When businesses are unable to remove some emissions, they resort to carbon offsets to account for them, such as reforestation, methane pollution collection at landfills, or agricultural modifications to trap more carbon in the soil. Offsets, on the other hand, are difficult to get correctly. Offset schemes that plant trees, for example, might be difficult to follow, and the trees may be destroyed later due to logging or forest fires. Because offsets are inexpensive, some businesses may be less motivated to perform the task of cutting emissions as much as possible—it may be easier to pay to continue polluting.


Carbon Washing

A form of greenwashing in the context of decarbonization reporting.