Wandering around Trinity’s campus, back when that was allowed, you would struggle to tread far without coming across a student proudly toting a reusable KeepCup, canvas bag, stainless steel water bottle, or all three simultaneously. Social trends aside, it illustrates how popular attitudes towards consumerism and its environmental impact are clearly changing among millennials and Gen Z-ers.
Food choices are among the most important climate decisions you can make as a consumer. At Trinity, this is visible in the wide variety of plant-milk options available at the Perch and the many students who bring in their home-made vegetarian lunches in bamboo tupperware. Young people are increasingly considering the ecological impact of the food they buy, often valuing a low carbon footprint over affordability and convenience.
This shift in priorities among young consumers has not escaped large companies who have duly noted this earnest attempt to factor in environmental impact. Many brands are responding positively to shifting demand by making their business practices more eco-friendly. This change has materialised on supermarket shelves where it feels as though every other product is advertising its “natural”, “sustainable” or “recyclable” properties.
“Unfortunately, the apparent environmental progress in the food industry may not be as transformative as companies would like us to believe.”
Unfortunately, the apparent environmental progress in the food industry may not be as transformative as companies would like us to believe. As Jason Ballard, CEO of a sustainable retailer describes: “People are getting more aware of the rarity of the Earth and the ways that our actions impact it. greenwashing is the dark side of a very positive development.”
What is greenwashing?
The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1983 to describe the trend of large companies falsely presenting their products as eco-friendly to appeal to eco-conscious consumers. Westerveld initially used the term in an essay to describe the irony of a beach resort in Fiji encouraging guests to reuse towels to “help the environment” while their broader business model was causing serious harm to the local ecosystem.
“Greenwashing is an unethical business practice as it intentionally misleads customers and exploits their earnest attempts to invest in brands that are better for the planet.”
The Useless Project, a Dublin-based sustainability initiative, defines greenwashing as brands making an unsubstantiated and misleading claim about the environmental benefits of their product or service to increase sales. In an effort to appeal to consumers, brands exaggerate a small facet of their product to make it seem extremely sustainable when in reality their product is far from environmentally friendly. Greenwashing is an unethical business practice as it intentionally misleads customers and exploits their earnest attempts to invest in brands that are better for the planet.
One popular greenwashing device is using deceptive nature-related phrases and images. There is minimal regulation to control how brands use hollow buzzwords such as ‘natural’, ‘green’ and ‘conscious’. These words are essentially devoid of meaning, but can dupe customers into thinking a product is environmentally friendly. Other greenwashing strategies include bragging about being more sustainable than other companies (even though the rest are terrible), using unintelligible scientific jargon designed to impress (and confuse!) consumers, and perhaps worst of all, completely fabricating facts.
A Green Image
Another common greenwashing tactic is constructing a “green” image around a product that is inextricably linked to systems of pollution and single-use waste. This is the kind of greenwashing used by disposable plastic water bottle brands such as Evian and Fiji Water.
Fiji Water’s aesthetic image centers around visually pleasing shots of lush tropical rainforests. One commercial proclaims that “Fiji water is a gift from nature to us, to repay our gift of leaving it completely alone”. Another advertisement proudly states that “Every drop is green”. The brand has an entire section of its website devoted to sustainability, featuring a series of unconvincing statements about its ethos and business practices. These include the empty promise that Fiji “has set a goal” to create a 20% recycled bottle in 2020. There is no mention of their progress in achieving this goal, nevermind the fact that having a 20% recycled bottle is no great feat.
Fiji Water’s greenwashing tactics dangerously misportray its product as a natural and beneficial part of our ecosystem. It distracts consumers from the truth, which is that Fiji Water is a company with a large environmental footprint that ships disposable plastic bottles from a remote island to buyers all around the world using pollutive transportation. This reality becomes even more bleak when considered alongside the fact that 22% of Fijians don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water according to the Fijian Minister for Agriculture.
Green Products vs Dirty Company
Fiji Water’s greenwashing practices likely come as no surprise to eco-conscious consumers who have long since ditched their single use water bottles in favour of reusable ones. Most educated environmentalists cannot be fooled by the eco-buzzwords plastered on Fiji’s disposable bottles. However, this crucial skepticism may not extend to products that consumers already perceive as environmentally friendly. Even the most critical consumer could fall prey to the more discreet greenwashing of brands like Oatly, an oat milk brand that was recently cancelled for accepting a $200 million investment from Blackstone Growth, a powerful private equity firm that recently came under fire for investing in companies spearheading the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
“Even though their product is good for the environment, their business model, in this case their investors, is still harmful for the planet.”
Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, is also a close ally of President Trump, whose environmentally harmful policies and general neglect of climate change is notorious. The discreet form of greenwashing Oatly employs falls under the category of “Green products vs dirty company”. This refers to the fact that even though their product is good for the environment, their business model, in this case their investors, is still harmful for the planet.
The Power of Selective Consumerism
The disheartening reality that many brands exploit eco-conscious consumers may be discouraging to well-meaning students trying to make positive changes. However, it is by no means a reason to give up hope. When viewed optimistically, the pervasiveness of greenwashing as a marketing device demonstrates how much power consumers have to change the way companies behave. If we perceive greenwashing as a sign of the power of consumer demand, we can be inspired to use this power to create meaningful change. By boycotting brands that use greenwashing as a marketing tool and supporting brands that are making honest efforts to be more sustainable, environmentally conscious consumers can avoid falling into the trap set out for us.
Through selective consumerism, we can aim to stop greenwashing from being a profitable practice and push companies to make genuine improvements. While it is unfortunate that the burden of holding companies accountable falls on the consumer, until greenwashing becomes more regulated, the best we can do is to make informed and calculated decisions about where we buy our food. Our influence as consumers can support brands that deliver on their environmental promises.