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March 10, 2023

Explainer: Household brands accused of greenwashing

Greenwashing is a tactic intended to win over customers who want to support environmentally-friendly businesses. We explain how it's done.

By Silvia Pellegrino

greenwashing
Hear no evil on greenwashing. Many companies hope consumers won’t take notice of dodgy green commitments. (Photo by Zapylaiev Kostiantyn via ShutterStock)
  • Walmart has been asked to pay $3m for misleading consumers on its use of bamboo and rayon.
  • H&M was criticised by the Norwegian Customer Authority for false advertising for its new “environmentally friendly” collection.
  • Coca-Cola likes to be seen as sustainable but is the biggest polluter of plastic in the world.

When a company or organisation spends more effort and money portraying themselves as environmentally friendly than really minimising their impact on the environment, the practice is known as “greenwashing“. It is a marketing tactic intended to win over customers who want to support businesses that care about the environment.

Environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing in 1986 when critiquing the absurdity of the “save the towel” movement occurring in hotels at the time. Westerveld argued that hotels claimed they were not washing as many linens in order to reduce water usage, when in fact that it was an effective cost-saving measure. In the end, the litter and waste around the hotel grounds, as well as the resorts’ extensive building renovations and expansions, proved the environmental initiative was just for show.  

Brands accused of greenwashing

Greenwashing can include factors as simple as misleading packaging or companies portraying themselves as environmentally conscious while relying on the use of fossil fuels. 

Greenwashing practices in certain industries can be simple to identify. For instance, the fossil fuel industry regularly promotes clean coal or natural gas as a sustainable energy source in an effort to reposition itself as “green” and environmentally friendly.

False or misleading advertising is often at the core of greenwashing. It typically represents an effort to address the need for long-term solutions without modifying the current situation.

While the practice occurs across industries, which companies have been accused of greenwashing? Below is a selection of well-known household names who have garnered greenwashing attention.

Volkswagen

In 2015, Volkswagen was found to have cheated emission tests by making its diesel cars appear far less polluting than they are. The car manufacturer admitted to installing ‘defeat devices’ in a variety of vehicles. This software was able to detect when an emission test was being conducted and adapt the car’s performance to lower emission levels. Consequently, this led to several lawsuits and fines totalling billions of dollars.

All of this happened as the company promoted environmentally friendly and low-emission features of its cars, like inserting a nitrogen oxide trap in the engine and a strengthened particulate filter, in its marketing campaigns. In reality, The US Environmental Protection Agency discovered that 482,000 VW diesel cars engines were emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above the US limit.

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McDonald’s

In 2019, the fast-food chain started an initiative to reduce the usage of single-use plastics in its restaurants. The main objective was to completely replace all plastic straws in its UK restaurants with recyclable paper alternatives. By presenting themselves as a big contributor to reduce plastic waste and by promoting sustainable alternatives, McDonald’s advertisement was a resounding success.

Nevertheless, the company’s new paper straws, which have replaced the previous plastic ones, are still not recyclable. McDonald’s manufacturer and environmental experts have raised numerous questions about sustainability. Notwithstanding the negative public response to it, McDonald’s is still running the campaign. 

The company is said to be examining further options, such as swapping straws for beaker lids – although its hard not to point out that beaker lids are also, however, made of plastic.

Coca-Cola

In its brand audit report released in 2022, Break Free From Plastic identified Coca-Cola as the world’s leading plastic polluter for the fifth consecutive year. The company stated in 2020 that it would not abandon plastic bottles because they claimed they were popular with customers, prompting public backlash.

However, it was the advertisement of Coca-Cola Life that arose a new issue for the beverage corporation. Coca-Cola Life was supposed to be a low-sugar drink, and it was promoted as a “green, healthy alternative” to the average soft-drink. When experts argued that the drink was still innutritious, it was taken off shelves in UK shops. While the drink used the natural sweeter Stevia, the drink still contained over 4 teaspoons of sugar per 330ml can, leaving customers feeling misled by the low-sugar label.

Yet, the company maintains that it is progressing in reducing its packaging waste. A representative in 2020 said, “Globally, we have the commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so that none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans, and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles. Bottles with 100% recycled plastic are now available in 18 markets around the world, and this is continually growing.”

Later, in June 2021, the Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against the beverage company for falsely claiming to be environmentally clean and sustainable while really being the biggest polluter of plastic in the world.

IKEA

A 2020 analysis by NGO Earthsight burst IKEA’s environmental bubble. From this report, it emerged the main partner used by IKEA for wood approval and certification, the Forest Stewardship Council, is actually guilty of greenwashing. 

This is because the Council allegedly did not act upon the use of illegal timber imported from Ukraine. IKEA also needs a lot of wood to keep the business going – utilising over 21 million cubic metres of it in 2019 – heavily contributing to deforestation and damaging eco-habitats. 

Nespresso

The largest coffee pod producer, Nespresso, hasn’t been totally transparent when it comes to the topic of recycling. Even though the company reassured the public that its single-use coffee pods are ecologically friendly and made exclusively of recyclable materials, the reality is slightly different.

There is some truth in the sense that the pods can theoretically be recycled. However, specialised machinery is needed in order to properly process them – which traditional recycling plants don’t have access to. 

While Nespresso started its own recycling program to aid this issue, other coffee brands like Keurig have instead changed the wording of its marketing in order not to imply that the pods are completely recyclable. 

Starbucks

In a similar move to McDonald’s, Starbucks not only eliminated the use of its plastic straws, but all straws in general. In 2018, the coffee chain introduced a sippy lid for all its beverages. However, it was quickly found that the new lid contained more plastic than the previous straw-lid combination.

Plastic is one of the least recyclable materials in the world, only 9% is properly processed. Even though Starbuck’s sippy lids are made of more plastic, they also contain polypropylene, which is more easily recyclable and more widespread. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that any or all of the new lids will be correctly recycled. 

Moreover, the United States sells about a third of its unprocessed recycling to underdeveloped nations, shifting accountability to less developed countries.

Walmart

Reducing Walmart’s carbon emissions has been one of the company’s main objectives since it announced that it will start operating under a low-carbon strategy.

However, some critics argue that rather than rendering its store sites more environmentally friendly, Walmart should focus on the emissions produced by its supply chains instead. Particularly as it is production, manufacturing and transportation that are the main culprits of Walmart’s carbon emissions, rather than the individual stores.

More recently, the US retailer got in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission after it filed a suit alleging Walmart wrongfully marketed at least two dozen textile items as made from bamboo and produced using eco-friendly processes. Instead, it was found the items were in fact made of rayon. Converting bamboo to rayon “requires the use of toxic chemicals and results in hazardous pollutants,” the FTC said in a news release. A court agreed and Walmart was required to pay $3m in civil penalties.

On the plus side, the company announced its Project Gigaton in 2017. Created to subtract a gigaton of green house gas (GHG) emissions from the global value chain by 2030, focusing on six key areas of work – energy use, nature, waste, transportation, product use and design and packaging. Since the project’s introduction, more than 574 million metric tonnes of emissions were avoided. 

Greenwashing in fast fashion

Throughout the years, fashion has also become a key area of attention for environmentalists, especially fast-fashion brands like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo.

These fashion companies add to the enormous amounts of textile waste produced by the garment industry. ReMake, a fashion non-profit, estimates that only 20% of abandoned textiles are recycled or reused and that 80% are burned or disposed of in landfills.

H&M

Although they may only make up a small amount of their total company, fast fashion businesses have a tendency to actively publicise their green activities. 

For instance, in 2012 H&M released its own line of eco-friendly clothing under the name “Conscious Collection”. The company claimed that it utilised recycled polyester and organic cotton. However, critics argue the line is a marketing gimmick to make it appear more environmentally concerned.

“Explore our assortment of sustainable fashion items that help you both look and feel good,” reads the mission statement for H&M’s conscious brand. Nevertheless, marketing buzzwords like “green,” “sustainable,” or “environmentally friendly” lack a universal meaning.

H&M was especially criticised by the Norwegian Customer Authority for false advertising in their new “environmentally friendly” collection. The Authority said “the information regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits.”

Zara

Another fashion brand accused of greenwashing is Zara. In 2022, the brand introduced a limited-edition line of “sustainable clothing” made from polyester generated from captured carbon emissions. However, the brand has been criticised as still promotes the concept of over-production and over-buying, which critics say cancels out these efforts.

Furthermore, Zara stated plans to start a pre-owned project to launch before the end of 2022. Alice Murphy, a journalist for The Independent, was one of the opponents, arguing that the fast-fashion sector should prioritise waste reduction before any second-hand clothes initiatives.

Even though the company said it is planning to slow down production, critics feel Zara is still not doing enough to address its current business model and the consequent heavy carbon footprint caused by its supply chains.

The brand is also under fire for failing to offer an exhaustive list of manufacturers and for not disclosing the audit results, which raises concerns about transparency.

Zara does have environmental ambitions, such as wanting to run all internal operations on renewable energy by 2030 and “move towards a circular economy model to extend the life cycle of the merchandise”. The company has also stated its goal to use only recyclable polyester and sustainable cotton by 2040, as well as to cut and offset all emissions.

Uniqlo

Japanese retailer Uniqlo, too, has been accused of greenwashing. With thousands of branches all over the world and its use of cheap production materials, like polyester and nylon, sold at low cost, this reputation on sustainability should not come as a surprise.

However, recently, Uniqlo has tried to move towards an eco-friendlier strategy, focusing on technologies that make the production of new clothing from recycled materials possible. For instance, by creating energy-efficient infrastructure, and aiding the Setouchi Olive Foundation in its efforts to safeguard and rehabilitate the islands and coastal regions of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.

However, a lack of transparency around manufacturing has given rise to accusations of greenwashing.

[Read more: Fast Fashion: The story behind the spin]

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