Greenwashing has become a many-headed beast.
Welcome to Regen Notes, exploring regenerative spaces, as a companion newsletter to Zoom Regenerative. (And heads up for the Next Zoom Regenerative, number 53, on the 21 February with Taleen Joefsson - Details and registration here)
It would be nice to think that the increase and sophistication of greenwashing is kind of good news - in that it shows genuine actions to tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis are gaining traction. As such is it the ‘club’ that organisations and brands playing a greenwash game want to be part of - whether or not their claims have any validity. The converse is that not being seen to be green will hurt sales, services and a disadvantage to winning work. (The Nielsen Media Research showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products)
Back in the winter of 2022 in Glasgow at COP26 Content Comms launched the Anti Greenwashing Playbook, to which I was delighted to author the foreword, in which I commented on the transparency of the language we use.
Have we in the climate/sustainability space created such a confusing array of terms and definitions that we have provided a mask for green-washers and green-wishers to hide behind?
The Many Heads of Greenwashing
That mask of language has grown, and become sophisticated as demonstrated by the range of related greenwashing concepts from the Planet Tracker, The Greenwashing Hydra,
Greenwashing, whereby companies make themselves appear more environmentally friendly than they really are, has become a many-headed beast.
Greencrowding is built on the belief that you can hide in a crowd to avoid discovery, relying on safety in numbers. If sustainability policies are being developed, it is likely that the group will move at the speed of the slowest.
Greenlighting occurs when company communications (including advertisements) spotlight a particularly green feature of its operations or products, however small, in order to draw attention away from environmentally damaging activities being conducted elsewhere.
Greenshifting is when companies imply that the consumer is at fault and shift the blame on to them.
Greenlabelling is a practice where marketers call something green or sustainable, but a closer examination reveals this to be misleading.
Greenrinsing refers to a company regularly changing its ESG targets before they are achieved. Planet Tracker has reported on this type of activity previously in an examination of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in the report, Soda-pressing.
Greenhushing refers to corporate management teams under-reporting or hiding their sustainability credentials in order to evade investor scrutiny. (cleverly masquerading as the opposite of greenwashing)
To this we should possibly add
Greenmasking (my clumsy term) involves using climate action terms and definitions to mask the real impact of an organisation, product or service on the environment in order to make it seem more carbon-positive or nature-positive than it actually is. This could include, for example, highlighting small or insignificant carbon initiatives (such as reporting on Scopes 1 and 2 only), or nature-positive claims based on small net gains, while ignoring/masking other, larger, more impactful environmental problems caused by the same company.
Greenwishing? Not to confuse with good ambition, but refers to communicating “symbolic” intentions and wishes as “substantive” actions and activities already in place.
And, we can place nature in front of most of these green washing terms , for example
Nature-rinsing - using beautiful nature and pristine landscape images, often without comment or explanation, to imply a company or products is focused on environmental commitments or is made from unadulterated or minimally processed natural ingredients.
The danger of all of these terms, increasingly evident, is that they do not contribute to really addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis - at their least-worst a distraction, at worst degenerative.
"At a time when corporations need to come clean about their climate impact and shrink their carbon footprint, many are exploiting vague and misleading 'net zero' pledges... while continuing with business as usual." (Study Shows How Corporations Are Deceiving the Public to 'Greenwash Their Brand’)
In the UK Construction sector The Anti-Greenwash Charter has been developed in partnership with the ASBP, The Green Register, The Good Homes Alliance, and Timber Development UK, to support organisations in the built environment to adopt and adhere to responsible marketing communications practices and procedures
The Alpha Greenwashing scam?
Writing on his always enlightening substack, Bill McKibben, in his latest post that arrived as I was sorting this, talks on the scum scam as the alpha story to understand greenwashing. Wait, Exxon's Not Going to be an Algae Company?
(Exxon) invested some millions in algae research—and invested huge sums of money in boasting about it. For much of this period, a viewer encountering the company for the first time would have concluded that Exxon was an algae company who happened to have a few oil wells on the side.
… this should teach us some lessons about credulity. Exxon and its ilk have been misleading us about global warming from the jump. In this case, they used their money to get many others involved (PR, Media, Research, Comms) in their propaganda effort.
Eco-Anxiety Climate Cafe
If the increase in greenwashing in its varied forms is giving you anxiety, if you are all too aware of being alone in the ‘wounded world’ that Aldo Leopold wrote about in his seminal Sand County Almanac way back in the 1940’s, and are in Brussels or Belgium on the 1st March, then do join me and others for a Force of Nature Climate Café. This cafe in collaboration with Living Future Europe is an effort to give the necessary space, to come together, to share openly and honestly, and reflect on how we can channel eco-anxiety into real action. Registrations are open here
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Regen Notes is the companion newsletter to Zoom Regenerative.
Previous articles on Regen/Notes can be explored here and the best of 2022 can be read here-
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