We cannot continue to consume, pillage and pollute the earth. Put simply, if everyone consumed like the US, we’d need four more planets to sustain ourselves. The good news is the public is becoming increasingly aware of the crisis we face. Companies know this and have responded.  Further good news according to TerraChoice is the huge increase in green products – up 75 per cent in 2009 to 2010 alone. The not-as-good-news is up to 95 percent of these products may not be as ‘green’ as they claim and so, along with the rise in greening activities, public debate about the notion of greenwashing is on the increase.   

Coined in 1984 by Jay Westervelt, greenwashing now stands for the negligible, misleading or false environmental claims, and more recently, social impacts of business activities. It is based on a business ideology run on short-term profits, negating negative effects on human and natural life, a thirst for continual and perpetual (economic) growth, and one which sees the need, either for reputation or profit, to ‘sell’ themselves as green. 

Most ‘green’ activities are often negligible. Indeed, businesses frequently spend more money on advertising their ‘green’ impacts than they actually spend on helping society.  According to Greenpeace, other greenwashing tactics include loudly voicing proactive environmental and social stances when, in actual fact, these activities are regulated by law. Or they or emphasise environmental activities while continuing to implement a business model focused on non-sustainable activities or products. Businesses might even use labels such as ‘natural’ or ‘green’, or create their own ‘sustainable’ labels, when these are not backed up by any evidence. There are also companies that advertise a pro-environmental stance while lobbying and funding politicians to oppose environmental regulation. 

Greenwashing is a rational and logical activity towards environmental and social impacts from a profit-centric ideology. The premise which underpins greenwashing stems from two mainstream but flawed ideas. 

Firstly, contrary to most business rhetoric, climate change and our rapidly depleting ecosystem mean we can’t consume our way out of the problem. We need products that are truly designed cradle-to-cradle, rather than cradle-to-grave, whereby products (and the various components of products) are either able to decompose into soil or are made from synthetic materials which can be continuously reused in the same products. If we do not have a mentality which revolves around zero waste for all products, then producing ‘green’ shampoo or ‘green’ clothing while generic, unsustainable products are still available hardly responds to the call for real action. 

Secondly, it places sole responsibility (and blame) on consumers to buy green. The reality is that despite polls which demonstrate the majority of consumers would buy green, this is usually not translated into action. This is understandable given most green products are more expensive than their counterparts, especially in an environment where our wages have been stagnating for years, and consumers presume performance trade-offs still exist.

Change starts with everyone taking equal responsibility and that includes consumers.  We must take responsibility to consume less (another idea rarely translated in the mainstream sustainable consumption discourse), to consume more sustainably and responsibly, and to buy only from companies which hold these values in place. Governments must take real action to enforce companies to take responsibility for the full life-cycle of their product (yes, that includes the impact of use and the disposal) and put in place infrastructure to incentivise sustainable production and consumption (i.e., subsidies). And, corporations must take real action to confront their impacts on society, on people and planet, beyond the ‘business-case’ – profit, reputation or seeing climate change as a business opportunity – for sustainability. However, this calls for a change in thinking, in ideology and in business models.  As Einstein wisely said “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used to create them.”

It’s not all bad news. We are seeing an increased uptake of new business models such as social enterprise and B-Corps which have values and the objective of solving environmental and social problems at their core. For example, Eat My Lunch has a social mission to provide a child with free lunch with each lunch purchase. Making a profit, providing jobs, products and contributing to the economy does not have to come at the expense of anyone or anything. 

Not all traditional businesses are big, evil corporations set on a path to destroy the planet. But we must evolve past the self-interested, self-centred, money-hungry producer and consumer. We must move beyond the homo economicus. Julia Roberts as Mother Nature in The Nature is Speaking initiative clip says, beautifully and succinctly, “I am prepared to evolve. Are you?”

Joya Kemper is a lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School.

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