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What Is Greenwashing and How Do We Spot It?

No one is a stranger to environmental issues like climate change, they frequently dominate our news headlines, our politics and our social media feeds, but despite the urgency of these problems are we really seeing the sustainable change we need to, or is it all talk and business as usual?

This behaviour would be nothing new, but simply a continuation of what fossil fuel companies have perfected over decades. First it was climate denial, then carbon footprints, climate delay and the latest iteration… greenwashing, where fossil fuels are now being promoted as a sustainable resource.

Greenwashing is not limited to carbon emissions either, and the situation where organisations or influencers will now knowingly substitute real environmental action for marketing spin in an attempt to keep growing their interests is extremely damaging, selfish and above all unhelpful in a time of crisis.

This watering down of environmental action presents a huge problem not just for net zero, but future sustainability as a whole. Business as usual is no longer an option, it hasn’t been for some time now, and if we continue on this trajectory the damage will keep growing exponentially.

It is important, therefore, that we know how to identify greenwashing in its various forms and be prepared to challenge it when we do. This article aims to give a few examples of what greenwashing might look like, in the interest of demanding better action for the sake of the planet.

False Narratives

In what could be regarded as the definitive type of greenwashing, organisations will use superficial marketing to convince their audience that their products and services have sustainable credentials, when in fact there is little to no substance to these claims. This could be anything from the latest carbon capture start-up to the more subliminal green coloured branding on your takeaway containers.

North Sea oil rig

New North Sea oil is unlikely to ease the cost of living crisis

The most brazen attempt I have witnessed so far is where fossil fuel companies are now claiming that natural gas is a sustainable resource, either as a “clean transition fuel”, or going to great lengths to capitalise on the next generation of domestic gas through fossil fuel derived hydrogen. In the case of oil, fossil fuel companies are currently lobbying the UK government for more domestic drilling in the North Sea under the false pretext that it will ease the cost-of-living crisis by increasing domestic supply, despite the fact that oil is sold to the highest bidder on the global market.

The big danger with these claims is that they can be somewhat plausible at face value, for example, there’s no denying the fact that fossil fuels will still be here for at least the medium term, so easing the transition with natural gas as appose to burning coal does make sense. However, this arrangement is rarely on limited terms and given the behaviour of fossil fuel companies over the last few decades, how can we say with any credibility that this isn’t just another effort to elongate our dependence on fossil fuels and slow down the progress of the renewable technologies that truly can produce clean energy, green hydrogen and lower the cost of living in one fell swoop.

Market Forces

Greenwashing can also be defined as a general lack of leadership in the context of environmental action and a substitute for real change. What can be very frustrating is despite the rhetoric from across the political spectrum, despite the continued rise in emissions, despite the IPCC reports, despite COP26, and despite the invasion of Ukraine, the speed of progress is painfully slow. There is endless discussion around what needs to be done, yet real action is scarce, so what causes this great stasis?

Russian Oil Tanker - Oil Fuels War

The continued sale of Russian oil is the result of a fragile global market with very little renewable contingency

A lot of greenwashing can be linked to economics so it’s important we identify that money is flowing to the right places. However, if you look at the problem from a market forces perspective, it’s easy to see that some of the safest long-term investments for shareholders are still in dirty companies, either oil, mining, energy or other utilities, so immediately there is no incentive to pursue what might be in some cases, a fundamental change in the business model.

Greenwashing is the natural result of business and therefore the private sector shouldn’t be relied upon for the drastic change that is needed. Instead, we should look to government and other political forces to put a stop to subsidises for new oil exploration, tax dividends for dirty investments and implement more severe fines for water companies that dump sewage overflow into our native waterways, in effect creating a market that’s more conducive to meaningful change.

Deflection

We are all familiar with the term “carbon footprint”, a phrase that describes individual responsibility in the fight against climate change. What a lot of people don’t know is that this phrase was coined by BP, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, and represents the origins of the greenwashing we see today. Having a sense of responsibility for your own consumption is by no means a bad thing but we should certainly not tolerate polluting companies shamelessly deflecting blame either.

The scale of this blame game can often extend to an international scale, where a common argument against climate action is always “but what about China?” This has a lot to do with the way we quantify environmental damage at source but not consider the wider context. China is known as the factory of the world, which means a lot of the carbon-intensive production that happens in China is consumed elsewhere. The same could be said for Australia where a lot of mining companies are financed by global stock markets.

Factories in China

Factories in China can be forced to lower production output because of air quality concerns

This is not to say however that they are completely without responsibility themselves as Australia still mines coal for power, which is also exported to China, despite the country having some of the best untapped geography for renewable energy in the world. However, this offshoring of responsibility is still greenwashing on a global scale, whether this be domestic waste disposal, fast fashion, plastic goods or agricultural products, it's important we look at the broader picture before pointing the finger.

A keen maker and electronic engineer with a passion for the environment, renewables, alternative transport and anything off-grid. Man with a van and founder of the Kickstart Kamper sustainable campervan project. Grassroots Education Sustainability Ambassador. Compulsive tea-drinker. BrightSpark 2017. BEng.
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