Greenwashing: is sustainability becoming a trend for companies to make money?

Written by Lifestyle

‘Sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’ and indeed ‘green’ are all loaded words within modern marketing aimed at a captive audience who, paradoxically, are more aware of humans’ damage to the environment than ever before, whilst simultaneously producing waste and pollution at an ever-increasing rate.

This twenty-first century ‘eco-anxiety’ is arguably what motivates companies to greenwash their brands; we’ve all watched Blue Planet, made the link between single-use plastic and sea pollution, and the marketing industry knows it. In the same sense that the phrase ‘whitewashing’ is used, its green counterpart refers a company adopting eco-friendly campaigns (be that via advertising slogans, ethos or simply choice of colours and packaging) in order to enhance their brand’s environmentally friendly image. So, are companies actually becoming more focused on sustainability in the wake of environmental concerns, or is this morality becoming a trend for companies to make more money?

Obviously, if a company spends more on its eco-friendly advertising campaigns than actually funding sustainability efforts and product development, greenwashing is clear. Mostly, however, it is more subtle, such as Pampers recently claiming to have a noble, tree-saving agenda behind reducing the paper fluff in their nappies, when in actual fact it just saved them a considerable amount of money. Similarly, in terms of creating a more ethical brand image as a whole, from 2009 European McDonald’s chains began to phase their colour scheme from red and yellow to green and yellow, which in the words of their spokesperson acknowledges their “responsibility for the preservation of natural resources”. This change of aesthetic does not negate McDonald’s involvement in the unsustainable meat and dairy industry (the damaging carbon emissions and water usage of which have been drawn to our attention by the recent rise in vegetarian and vegan activism), or their distribution of single-use plastic straws, takeaway cups and drinks bottles. This arguably subliminal marketing strategy (I was shocked after realising I had not noticed this gradual colour change from red to green) contributes to painting a big corporation in a more wholesome light.

Another more recent cause for controversy is tech initiative Ecosia, a search engine which promises to plant trees with every Internet search via money from controlled advertising. This may sound too good to be true, and suspicions arose when discovering that Ecosia is involved carbon offsetting, where companies pay to have their carbon emissions negated by the planting of more trees or funding conservation. This has been likened to the system of Catholic indulgences, as the paying off of environmental ‘sins’, and so Ecosia has been accused of greenwashing if its actual impact on carbon emissions is less than advertised. Research into Ecosia however does suggest more merit than simply adopting the sustainability trend for the company’s own gain, and so this controversy, I believe, confirms the general scepticism we now have for ethically motivated companies. In a modern world hyper-aware of the environmental damage we cause on a daily basis, product choice and brand integrity becomes extremely complex, as we struggle to discern who has the planet’s interests at heart and who has piggybacked the ‘green’ trend for their own gain.

As a self-confessed cynic I would find it naively optimistic to suggest that companies don’t greenwash their brands for popularity and profit. At the end of the day, though, even if businesses are motivated by economic gain, as long as their practices are not corrupt, sustainability is still increasingly becoming a focus of companies’ ethos as standard. This in itself is a step forward in creating a more sustainable consumer society.


Last modified: 16th February 2019

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