Is the ‘golden age of greenwashing’ ending?

05 October 2021, 07:54 AM
  • Will legally binding guidance from the CMA, coming into force in January 2022, shatter the greenscreen, and how can businesses prepare? Lisa Jones asks
Is the ‘golden age of greenwashing’ ending?

The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist Jay Westervel in 1986 to describe a hotel’s ‘environmentally friendly’ towel reuse policy, when expanding in distinctly unfriendly ways. 

It refers to a marketing tactic of giving a misleading impression of environmental credentials, of hiding behind false, vague, exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims. And it covers a sliding scale from British Petroleum coining the phrase ‘carbon footprint’ for an advertising campaign and a green flower logo rebrand, to insidious, woolly claims like ‘natural’, ‘earth-friendly’ or ‘ethical’. 

With 57% of UK millennials willing to spend more on environmentally friendly groceries now, the problem has grown commensurately with conscious consumer demand, such that Greenpeace recently stated baldly: “We’re living in a golden age of greenwash”, branding it “our Pied Piper to climate doom”. 

“Sadly, greenwashing seems pervasive in every industry”, says Georgina Wilson-Powell, editor of sustainable lifestyle magazine pebble and author of the consumer guide Is it Really Green?, DK Books. “Even from those that are supposed to be helping the planet”. 

Indeed, the greener the profile, the harder they fall. 

Investment last year from the Blackstone Group in oat mylk producers Oatly, saw shares in the sustainability trailblazers tumble by 7%, by association with a corporation accused of environmental destruction and connections with arch climate denier Donald Trump.

Similarly, eco-cleaning brands Ecover and Method saw their ‘Ethniscore’ ratings in Ethical Consumer magazine plummet after selling to non-cruelty-free SC Johnson. There followed a social media backlash and a refusal by the magazine to endorse both brands, citing SC Johnson’s ‘worst rating’ for palm oil sourcing, environmental reporting, tax avoidance strategies and pollution and toxics. 

Both examples illustrate just how unforgiving the consumer can be, how quickly a reputation can be damaged and how far the paper trail of climate impact is traced.

“There are two reasons to be hopeful.” Wilson-Powell says, however, “Firstly, more consumers are more engaged and informed and are prepared to challenge and ask questions about supply chains, packaging and impact. Secondly, the CMA [Competition and Markets Authority] has just issued legally binding guidance around environmental claims that all companies will have to abide by from 1st January 2022.” 

The green screen is lifting, and businesses must prepare to be accountable to both the customer and the law. “It’s important that people can easily choose between those who are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not,” said Andrea Coscelli, CEO of the CMA, “so that businesses genuinely investing in going green can be properly rewarded by their customers.”

Transparency and integrity are the watchwords here, but there is also a range of independent, category-specific certifications out there doing the legwork in rubberstamping products and practices. 

Fairtrade, Soil Association, Rainforest Alliance, Leaping Bunny, PETA, Vegan Society, FSC … the list continues, with all filtering stringent criteria and third-party validation into their powerful logos.

Achieving them can be expensive for smaller businesses, however, involving initial certification and ongoing auditing. But a growing swell of organisations, such as Ecologi, are offering pay-as-you-go carbon offsetting opportunities, often supplying evidential numbers of trees planted, countries, species or projects supported to verify Net Zero objectives. 

Treeapp, for example, provides flexible tree-planting packages, while ‘carbon credits’ can be banked with Stand for Trees, which uses a business’ contributions to protect existing forests, given that it takes 20 – 30 years for a tree to effectively absorb and store CO2. And 1% for the Planet provides increasingly respected certification for donating 1% of annual sales or salary to environmental causes, factoring in volunteer work to approved not-for-profit organisations, too.

Increasingly, the Green Grail is Certified B Corporation status, which balances purpose with profit and, unlike specialist kitemarks, takes a holistic view of a business and its supply chains, which is then “legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community and the environment,” they state. 

With such rigour comes a long application process, but proportionate credibility. “It ratifies everything we are already doing and pushes us to get better,” says Kris McGowan of the Raw Chocolate Company, after a two-year application. “Instead of having to tell the whole story, we can just show our B Corp badge, and in many situations that opens the door a little quicker.” 

Gearing up for January 2022, then, Wilson-Powell suggests: “Make sure you’re on top of the new CMA guidance. Own your own mistakes, run a sustainable or carbon footprint audit of where you are now and look to work with companies and kitemarks that can help you achieve the level of sustainability you want.” 

The DEFRA guide to making an environmental claim is a comprehensive guide for such auditing; as is the CAP code, governing environmental claims for marketing activity. And the Ethical Business Blog offers a useful Challenge the Brief checklist of questions to level at claims, ranging from the legal to the moral. 

If this all sounds overwhelming, back to Wilson-Powell for reassurance: “You don’t have to do it all. It might be enough to be ‘plastic free’ or to work towards a Net Zero business. Identifying which you can work on and achieve first is half the battle.”

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