Greenwashing - When the Truth is Scarier Than the Costume

Greenwashing - art by Aimée Lister

As dimly lit pumpkins stare outside window sills with wavering gazes and kids put on their best Dracula and Frankenstein impressions, it’s heart-warming to see the important role deception plays in having a little fun. But what is key here, as is the case in most of our entertainment industry - be it theatre, cinema, or theme parks - is that we choose to step into the illusion, in other words, we are aware and consent to deception. But what happens when we are unknowingly deceived and it is not the costume that is scary, but the truth that hides behind our everyday life?

Greenwashing is a type of costume that major corporations and institutions use to create the impression that they are more concerned about environmentally friendly ethics than they actually are in practice.

The term was first coined in 1986 by the environmentalist Jay Westerveld who came across a hotel asking customers to help ‘Save Our Planet’ by reusing towels. But something didn’t seem quite right... At the time the hotel was expanding into the local area and failed to show any other concerns for the environment, particularly in the way they dealt with waste. Like whitewashing, greenwashing serves to cover up unethical behaviour.

It is something that has made its way across all sorts of commercial and public transactions, ranging from the fashion industry to the sectors of energy and education. In fact, it is very common for unsustainable mass corporations to use educational institutions to craft the public image that they are not only ‘eco-friendly’, but essential for progress. The Zero Carbon Society, a student initiative to encourage divestment at Cambridge University, published a report last year exposing how fossil fuel companies used a variety of methods, ranging from professorships, to awards and research funds, as well as branded equipment, in order ‘to maintain and bolster their social licence to operate’.

BP alone has three professorships at the University of Cambridge. The BP professorship of Chemistry was established in the 90s after the company donated £1.5 million to the university, whilst the BP Foundation McKenzie Professorship of Earth Sciences was established after a £4.15 million donation to support research quantitative physical Earth Sciences, and, finally, the BP professorship on Petroleum Science likewise opened after a large donation and had an opening balance of £32 million on the 1st of August 2017. On top of this, the vast number of awards such as the BP Chemistry Prize proves a relatively cheap way to ‘greenwash and funnel students into fossil fuel jobs on graduation’. Branded equipment such as undergraduate lab coats as well as the BP Institute encourages an inevitable association between ‘cutting edge’ research and the fossil fuel company.

In 2019, BP released the ‘Keep Advancing’ and ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ campaigns as an attempt to promote themselves as agents for ‘low carbon energy solutions’, as stated by Angela Strank, BP chief scientist and head of technology, downstream International in the Student Energy Summit 2019. In the same gathering, Angela referred to both ‘Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough’, clearly making use of influential environmental figures to boost the company’s image. In that same year, environmental lawyers from ClientEarth launched a complaint against the ‘multimillion pound advertising campaign’, pointing out that more than 96% of the company’s annual capital expenditure is on oil and gas’.

Other instances of Greenwashing include the controversial treatment of vegan materials as sustainable by default. The fashion industry has been known to choose viscose over cotton or polyester, which is ‘manufactured cheaply using energy, water, and chemically-intensive processes that have devastating impacts on workers, local communities, and the environment’. It also takes down around 150 million trees every year.

A classic example is the palm oil dilemma in vegan products, the plantations of which are concentrated mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia. The UN has estimated that 98% of Indonesia’s forest may be destroyed by 2022 by this Industry. Other products include cashew nuts, avocado, and chocolate which are linked to large scales of deforestation and unethical labouring conditions.

A lot of greenwashing ends up unscrutinised precisely because there is no clear definition of what ‘sustainable’ actually means. What is sustainable for you might be different to what a company labels as sustainable. For that reason, it’s important to know what you can do as a consumer.

Alright, what is it exactly that you can do?

  • Look at the figures behind the words. Start with looking into the company’s understanding of sustainability. Set companies against each other to get a whole picture.

  • Natural doesn’t mean sustainable. Check how materials are sourced and whether they have a negative impact on natural areas and human labour.

  • Check for certifications and assessment labels. These include Fairtrade GreenSeal, GreenGuard. Companies with B Certifications also have to meet ‘highest standards of verified social and environmental performance’

  • Use your resources. All of this can seem very time consuming, but don’t worry, that’s what the internet is for

  • For an overview check out EthicalConsumer.

  • For the fashion industry, check out Transparency Index and Fair Wear.

  • For ethical working conditions have a look at the Worker Rights Consortium.

At the end of the day, what fuels unsustainable practices is profit. A 2015 Nielsen Media Research estimated that 66% of Global Consumers were willing to pay more for products that are environmentally and socially friendly. When it comes to Global Millennials, that number goes up to 73%. It’s clear that we have the awareness, we just have to point it in the right direction.

By Louder Than The Storm writer Nina Purton


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