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Here are the 7 sins of greenwashing

Opinion: we need to be savvy to know and recognise the difference between genuine action-based commitments and non-binding, watered down vows By Chris Moran and Claire O'NeillUCC/ERI

The COP27 in Egypt spotlighted once again the climate crisis and issues of sustainability. Increasingly extreme, frequent, and catastrophic weather events around the globe are making the existential threat a frightening reality; climate change and biodiversity loss are more alarming and tangible than ever.

Over 190 countries, referred to as ‘parties’, who have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathered for the 27th ‘conference of the parties’ (COP) with the overall aim of collectively assessing current progress and further advancing climate action around the world. Greta Thunberg has already highlighted that COP27 was awash with greenwash and additionally, and ironically, the host country has been scrutinised for discrepancies around environmentalism in recent weeks.

Greenwashing is "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service". However, it can also be carried out, intentionally or unintentionally, by governments or any other entity that makes misleading claims of the environmental performance or impact of their activities.

While the term has featured more increasingly in mainstream media over the past few years, it is worth bringing further attention to and unpacking different types of greenwashing, how to identify greenwash and how we can respond. A useful way of understanding greenwashing is via the '7 sins of greenwashing', a set of 7 different ways in which greenwashing can occur. These sins, identified by Terrachoice in 2007, assist consumers in identifying and understanding misleading and/or false environmental claims.

The sin of the hidden trade-off

This sin focuses on one narrow pro-environmental attribute whilst neglecting to bring attention to more important and wider environmental issues of relevance. This sin, essentially the ‘tree hiding the forest’ is the most used. Examples include technology promoting energy efficiency without disclosing hazardous materials used in manufacturing or paper straws promoted as the sustainable option without acknowledging the large water used in manufacturing.


The sin of no proof

As the name suggests, this sin is committed if environmental claims are made without any credible evidence to support them. TV adverts by companies such as Ryanair and Innocent smoothies have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UKs' advertising watchdog as their environmental claims were ruled to be misleading. In the case of Innocent smoothies, the ASA ruling stated that "many consumers would interpret the overall presentation of the ad to mean that purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact". The ASA subsequently ruled in favour of the complainants.

The sin of vagueness

This sin relates to claims that are broad and not clearly defined, which are consequently likely to be misunderstood by consumers. An example of such is 'natural' being used to claim environmental benefits of a product or service. Arsenic and uranium are both ‘natural’ ingredients, but they are also poisonous. Sins #2 and #3 can overlap with each other given that terms such as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, and ‘ethically sourced’ are vague and meaningless if they are not supported with evidence.

The sin of worshiping false labels

This sin is committed by companies who create ‘sustainability’ certifications or labels that are simply false. These can mislead consumers by creating the illusion that a product or service has been independently certified as environmentally sustainable through a legitimate third-party screening process when this is not the case in reality. Certification by third parties such as B-CorpFairtradeEnergy StarFSCOrganic Association, which have recognisable logos, should be trusted as opposed to those claiming ‘100% Organic Certified’ or ‘Energy Efficiency Certified’.

From UCC, the 7 sins of greenwashing

The sin of irrelevance

This relates to environmental claims that may be truthful but unimportant due to quite simply being irrelevant. An example is that of environmentally damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were banned under the Montreal protocol over 30 years ago. Products that claim to be ‘CFC-free’ therefore commit sin # 5 as they imply that they are more environmentally friendly than competitors on this point when in fact they are not.

The sin of the lesser of two evils

This sin relates to environmental claims of products that are inherently damaging to the environment. While all products use natural resources and energy to some extent, some industries and products are more environmentally damaging than others. Earlier this year, the Advertising Standards Suthority of Ireland (ASAI) , banned a sponsored article in which an Irish personality spoke about using a Land Rover Defender suggesting the environmental benefits of using the vehicle. One of the various issues that was brought to, and upheld by the ASAI was that the car, described as a "mild hybrid" had an "internal combustion engine that burned fossil fuels, which they (the complainants) considered was working against the environment".

Calling out greenwash for what it is enables us to make informed judgments on the credibility of proposed solutions

The sin of fibbing

The final sin describes environmental claims that are false. An advert of oil giant Shell was banned by the ASA in 2008 for claiming that its oil sands project in northern Canada was ‘sustainable’. In this case, Shell was judged to have used the word ‘sustainable’ in a vague manner (Sin#3) and for making the false claim that the project was ‘helping provide a sustainable future’ (Sin#7).

As we witness yet another COP come and go, we need governments to go beyond non-binding pledges and empty promises. While last year's COP26 was applauded by some for ‘increasing the speed’ of climate action, it was also criticised for a ‘watering down’ of commitments from ‘phasing out’ of coal to ‘phasing down’.

We as citizens and consumers need to be savvy. We need to know and recognise the difference between genuine action-based commitments and non-binding, watered down vows. Calling out greenwash for what it is enables us to make informed judgments on the credibility of proposed solutions.

Chris Moran is a PhD researcher at Cork University Business School at UCC/ERI. He is an Irish Research Council awardee under the 2022 Environmental Protection Agency Postgraduate Scholarship programmeDr. Claire O'Neill is a Lecturer in Marketing in the area of sustainable marketing and consumption at Cork University Business School at UCC/ERI.