greenwashing

Courting the Eco-Conscious: The Problem of Greenwashing

With Earth Day 2021 on the horizon, expect to see stories of Greenwashing populate the headlines, your timeline and even your LinkedIn feed. Yet, Greenwashing is nothing new. In the mid-1980s, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of television and print ads to convince the public of its environmental pursuits. Titled ‘People Do’, the campaign showed Chevron employees protecting a menagerie of endangered animals, including bears, big cats and sea turtles. In 2010, Greenpeace famously held BP to account, after the oil and gas company adopted green ‘ethical’ branding in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In 2017, Shell announced a $300m fund for “investing in natural ecosystems.” Yes, Greenwashing has been a commonplace practice for many years. However, what’s new is the cynical exploitation of contemporary demographics that sit behind many contemporary greenwashing attempts. 

First, let’s take a step back and define Greenwashing. Put simply, Greenwashing is when companies provide misleading information about how their products and actions are more environmentally sound than they actually are. It often takes the form of unsubstantiated claims, aimed to deliberately deceive consumers into believing that the business presents an environmentally friendly option.

Greenwashing – Past Precedents

In the past, it’s fair to say that companies used Greenwashing as a deflection. Oil and Gas giants used Greenwashing to obscure the environmental devastation brought on by their business practices. Let us not forget the consequences of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill – 

11 workers were killed and 17 injured by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. About 1,300 miles of the U.S. Gulf Coast was covered in oil. There was massive devastation inflicted upon local wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico, including the deaths of an estimated 800,000 birds and 65,000 turtles.

Shell’s $300m fund for “investing in natural ecosystems” may sound generous, but it’s important to put this ‘philanthropy’ into perspective: Shell’s annual income is $24bn. 

Shell also spends $22 million annually on anti-climate lobbying. Exposed internal documents, and Shell’s own film Climate of Concern, indicate that the company has been aware of the dangers of climate change (including its contribution towards it) for over 30 years. According to Amnesty International, Shell was involved in numerous murders, tortures and rapes that were carried out by paramilitary organisations in the oilfields of Nigeria in the 1990s. Shell has been making profits for decades from its gas drilling exploitation activities in Groningen – causing earthquakes and damaging people’s houses. It doesn’t take a PR Guru to see that Greenwashing is an exercise in public image damage limitation.

Greenwashing Today

Courting the Eco-Conscious

While an attempt at obfuscation is also true of today’s Greenwashers, there’s a further, potentially seedy aspect to consider. Year on year, my social feeds are filled with #EarthDay memes and attempts at corporate hashtag hijacking. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 6 in 10 Americans said global climate change is a major threat to the country. By 2021, U.S. consumers are estimated to spend $150 billion on sustainable products with increased willingness to pay a premium for such goods.

According to the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), climate change is atop a list of concerns facing Millennials and Generation Z. They state that 71% of young people see it as the biggest challenge facing their generation. Not only do they show up to protest, they help shape business. What’s more is that as stated by the 5WPR 2020 Consumer Culture Report, 83% of young people want brands to align with them on values. 76% want CEOs and leaders to take a strong stance on the issues that matter to them. About two thirds will boycott a brand that takes an opposite stance on an issue. In truth, Gen Z is already on track to become the largest generation of consumers, accounting for up to $143 billion in direct spending.

To capitalise on this growing demand for environmentally conscious products, the prevalence of greenwashing in 2021 is mindblowing. In an ideal world, corporations would see that customers genuinely care about ethical issues, wishing to see brands align with their stance on environmental and cultural politics. They would redirect their business practices on a fundamental level, reshaping practice and resulting in measurable changes – such as using renewable energy or sustainable packaging alternatives

It’s plain as day that a move towards sustainability, and strong ethical ethos is how today’s businesses will court emerging demographics. It’s also important to remember that many of today’s CEOs and business leaders do not reflect these demographics. White men account for 72% of corporate leadership at the 16 Fortune 500 companies that agreed to Fortune magazine’s study. This is hardly reflective of the diversity and inclusivity that younger generations strive to see represented. 

A Shrewd Youth

While the fact that most corporate leaders are white men doesn’t necessarily mean that attempts at any eco-conscious activity is insincere, given the fact that the average age of CEOs in the United States stood at 54.1 years, it’s fair to say that they may not fully relate to emerging generations (millenials and Gen Zs) that the right-wing press loves to label as virtue-signalling snowflakes. And given that more than 95% of consumer products that claim to be green commit at least one of the “sins” of greenwashing (according to a study by TerraChoice), it’s fair to take a skeptical approach towards claims of environmental concern. 

However, Gen Z audiences should be underestimated at companies’ own peril. Given the fact that today’s youth have been exposed to technology and the web since birth, they are much more savvy to digital mistruths. 

In fact, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey focused on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, “95% of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone, and a similar share (97%) use at least one of seven major online platforms.” Yet only 7% of Gen Z college students found social media to be the most trustworthy news source.

The takeaway is simple – younger audiences are getting better at spotting lies. Greenwashing has never been acceptable but it’s becoming more noticeable. Corporations should commit to sincere, actionable, and sustainable changes or risk being caught out by today’s shrewd youth.   

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