The Green Inquiry: Greenwashing and The Responsibility of the Ethical Consumer
"The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife."
All of us, at some moment in our lives, will face this truth, observed by the late biologist and conservationist Rachel Carlson, best known for catalyzing the global environmental movement. Her work has since transcended the era it was born in, adrenalizing the public's consciousness in a powerful way.
As a content strategist working for an ethical organic food company, I contribute to the chorus of voices in our digital space by advocating for sustainable alternatives. Many of us share the same underlying goal: to instill a better understanding of our impact on the environment and provide tangible ways we can adjust our habits of consumption. All this, perhaps, to decrease the odds of the earth ending by 2050. The result? A growing environmental consciousness amongst businesses and consumers alike.
Unfortunately not everyone is convinced. There are businesses and corporations who view the green wave as yet another market trend, and have been quick to exploit the space between public perception and scientific fact. Instead of adjusting business practices to address the looming problems of climate change, they have invested time and money to market their products or brand as “green”. This practice is known as "greenwashing".
The Problems With Greenwashing
Greenwashing is particularly frustrating because it takes up valuable space across digital spheres in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, air pollution, and plastic ocean pollution, to name a few.
One classic green washing case that fueled my seething cauldron of disappointment came from the car giant Volkswagen, who admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting over 11 millions cars world wide with "defeat devices" — a proprietary software that altered the emissions levels of cars whenever they were undergoing regulatory testing. This, all while Volkswagen was touting the low-emissions features of its vehicles through marketing campaigns. Outside of the tests, however, the engines switched out of the test mode. The result was engines emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US.
One may wonder if such practices are confined to industries that need a greener public image, as with transportation, manufacturing, and energy companies. Surely it stands to reason that they have the most to benefit from green washing? Well, not quite.
The trouble is that even ecologically conscious corporations who adopt green technologies run the risk of over-stating the environmental benefits of their product. Consider the term 'bio-plastics'. Off the cuff it immediately sounds like a great alternative to the plastic bags we're already familiar with, since it connotes the idea of biodegradability. True enough, many major corporations, including Tesco, Walmart and Marriott, bought into this idea — until it was revealed that biodegradable plastics could do more harm than good. The catch is bio-plastics do not fully degrade unless they are placed in a digester designed to create the right conditions for bio-degradation. This on top of large amount of energy that goes into making them and the possibility of toxic leftover waste.
Corporations also green-wash their products simply by associating their products with imagery of nature. As in the case of Fiji's bottled water (— and catchy slogan "untouched by man") this subliminal association appeals to the environmental consciousness of the consumer without providing any evidence of its purity or sustainability. Meanwhile, 12 percent of Fiji residents have no access to safe, clean drinking water — a little ironic, considering a bulk of its consumers have access to readily available tap water.
The Responsibility of the Ethical Consumer
The good news is there are consumer affairs watchdogs that keep an eye on misleading and unsubstantiated environmental marketing claims. Of course, this is by no means a foolproof deterrent — many profit-driven corporations will undoubtedly continue to find and exploit loop holes.
So, what does this mean for consumers? Do we simply stop buying products all together? Well, not quite — although one of the greenest thing you can do is to buy fewer things.
Understandably, this can be quite the challenge for most consumers — the need for daily necessities and general consumption habits isn't going to disappear overnight, and it certainly can be a little daunting to think of your efforts as an all-encompassing solution in changing the world.
Small actions may not seem like much now, but they collectively add up. As Dr. Jane Goodall puts it: “Each and every one of us must do our part in creating a better world, for though the small choices we make each day – what we buy, what we eat, what we wear – may seem insignificant, the cumulative effect of billions of people making ethical choices, will start to heal the natural world”.
The Green Inquiry
Ethical consumption is not solely about purchasing less things, or buying strictly from ethical and Eco-friendly companies. It is about understanding, acknowledging, and consenting to the product's behind-the-scene practices with careful thought and discernment. It takes into account not just the initial pleasure and joy of acquiring a new item, but also the entire lifetime of a product, and the way you eventually dispose of, or transform them.
There are two aspects we can consider.
The first aspect is tangibility: how we can combine our feelings towards sustainability with personal habitual objectives. I first started by considering some tangible habits I could work towards. For instance, I wanted to build better hydration and eating habits, so I invested in a water bottle and lunch box that not only reduced the need for single use plastics, but also helped me hit my personal dietary goals.
The second aspect, closely related to the first, is perceptibility — a working understanding of how your small efforts can contribute to the big picture. Bringing containers out can be inconvenient at times, but knowing that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced in the last 70 years is always handy in reminding myself to stick to my efforts.
And finally, a word of encouragement.
I often worry ethical consumers will give up on trying to effect change through purchasing, because they see so much ill behavior coming from the top. Notwithstanding market players who don't buy into the idea of social responsibility, sustainable practices are hard to enact and enforce, and profit margins are slim.
As a 2010 Wall Street Journal article, “The Case Against Corporate Social Responsibility,” highlights: “.. the fact is that while companies sometimes can do well by doing good, more often they can’t. Because in most cases, doing what’s best for society means sacrificing profits.”
But while it seems that we are stuck with hoping for consumers to drive change, I am confident change will come and grow exponentially with time. You'll be surprised at how the next generation is using their voices to amplify change — driving the upcoming wave of ethical entrepreneurs.
As more ethical products emerge in the market, it will become increasingly easier to be a part of the global movement towards sustainability. Know that your actions — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant — are key in the ethical consumption puzzle. Your voice, action, and money will build the bridge to greater availability and access to sustainable production and consumption. Remain optimistic, and remember that the time to act is now.
Daniel is a content strategist, film maker, and writer. Before moving into content strategy, he co-directed Jubileo: A Parable of Christian Fellowship (2020, Docs Without Borders Film Festival), a film birthed from his curiosity in religion and its role in shaping culture. As a writer, Daniel is curious about marketplace trends, and examines the need for an ethical backdrop in guiding social progress.