Greenwashing: These 15 Corporations Are Hiding Alarming Secrets From The Public
Sustainability is one of the biggest themes of this decade. Consumers are beginning to care more and more about the products they buy and how the manufacturing processes affect the environment.
Many companies have made it their mission to be more sustainable and create more environmentally friendly products, but other companies have misled their customers. These companies use carefully worded advertisements and misleading claims to make it seem like they are more sustainable than they actually are. This is called “greenwashing.”
1. What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a term that describes a company that presents an image of sustainability through clever advertising and marketing but isn’t actually making any notable efforts to be more environmentally friendly. Companies that are greenwashing spend far more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly rather than actually minimizing their environmental impact.
2. How Can You Spot It?
Companies who participate in greenwashing often have one or more of these tells:
Evocative pictures that give an unjustified green impression, such as a flower blooming out of an exhaust pipe
Labels that look like a third-party endorsement but are actually made up
Fabricated claims or data
Using language such as “eco-friendly” and “natural” without giving them a clear meaning
Subtle hypocrisy, such as advertising efficient light bulbs while simultaneously producing those bulbs in a factory that pollutes nearby rivers
Attempting to “green” a dangerous product to make it look more safe, such as eco-friendly cigarettes or oil production
In 2019, the fast food giant McDonald’s put out a campaign to reduce the number of single-use plastics in its restaurants. The main goal was to replace all of the plastic straws with recyclable paper alternatives. The campaign put McDonald’s at the forefront of sustainability as a stakeholder in reducing plastic waste and embracing more sustainable solutions.
The new paper straws are not recyclable, though, and their sourcing and manufacturing have also raised some eyebrows. The company is currently looking at other alternatives, such as sippy lids like those used at Starbucks, but those will ultimately be made with plastic as well. Environmental advocates have made less complicated suggestions, such as not using lids or straws and simply drinking directly from the cup.
4. Royal Dutch Shell
Shell has launched repeated campaigns that paint it to be a company committed to global net zero programs, reducing carbon emissions, and helping the world fight global warming. Several reports exposed Shell for exploring new oil and gas production opportunities.
The company has also refused to talk about how its economic portfolio aligns with the global net-zero goals and has been generally vague about its actionable plans to reduce carbon emissions. Experts believe these behaviors indicate that Shell has no desire or intention to undertake any decisive climate action outside of advertising campaigns.
In 2015, Volkswagen was caught falsifying emissions reports on several lines of its diesel vehicles. The car manufacturer has branded its new line of diesel vehicles as one of the most environmentally conscious options available and allegedly had the data to prove it. When they were caught faking the reports, they were taken to court with several lawsuits and were hit with billions of dollars in fines.
For a long time, Volkswagen’s vehicles were considered to be some of the lowest emitters in the combustion-engine market. Then the United States Environmental Protection Agency discovered that the cars actually produced up to 40 times more emissions than the company advertised. Volkswagen denied everything and instead claimed that they had misunderstood the testing requirements.
The case of SeaWorld is one of the most famous and long-running greenwashing scandals. SeaWorld has been under scrutiny for years for the mistreatment of its killer whales. The marine park company has continuously denied the claims and has stated that it “actively ensures the happiness and well-being of its captive killer whales.” Killer whales are a core component of SeaWorld’s business operations, as they are one of the most popular attractions.
Several reports from activists, non-governmental organizations, and green groups have claimed that the whales are in poor health, exhibit signs of mental strain, and live in conditions that are not good for their general well-being. SeaWorld has repeatedly denied calls to release its captive whales.
Coca-Cola has been accused of greenwashing in two different cases. The first was after their promotion of the low-sugar version of their soda, Coca-Cola Life. The alternative was labeled a “green, healthy alternative.” The company also claimed that it is committed to reducing plastic waste.
Consumers have seen right through the greenwashing in both cases. Nutritionists were quick to expose the harm in advertising Coca-Cola Life as “healthy,” and coincidentally, the product disappeared from the shelves shortly after. The low-sugar label allegedly misled consumers about the total content that was still present in the drink. Coca-Cola was also dragged into court over its plastic waste claims. The company has been named one of the world’s largest polluters.
8. Nespresso and Keurig
Nespresso was quick to reassure its customers that its single-use pods were recyclable, advertising them as a high-quality, eco-friendly product. Other pod manufacturers, such as Keurig, were quick to back up these claims and doubled down on the idea that customers could throw out their used pods with their recycling.
This claim is not entirely true. Although the pods are recyclable, they require specialized centers and non-standard equipment in order to process them. Keurig was sued for false advertising and had to change the wording of its advertisements. Nespresso puts the responsibility on the customer to be eco-friendly, and consumers must bring their used pods back to a Nespresso dealer in order for their pods to be properly recycled.
Walmart recently announced its plan to shift to a low-carbon operating model. They are following in the footsteps of their competitors as companies are becoming more conscious of their carbon emissions. Walmart is attempting to follow the sustainability trends and pledged to make its store locations as low carbon as possible.
The framework that the company put forward was found to be lacking. The vast majority of the company’s emissions come from the supply chain: processing, manufacturing, and transport, not its physical store locations. So far, the company has not expressed any interest in reducing its indirect emissions. Although Walmart has endeavored to follow in its competitors’ footsteps, it has not made any real strides in creating an effective emissions reduction plan.
10. Red Lobster
Red Lobster has always prided itself on sustainably sourcing its produce and advertises its seafood as “ethically caught in environmentally friendly ways.” These claims landed them in court with a class action lawsuit brought against them. The plaintiffs claim to have evidence that shows the company’s unsustainable and unethical fishing practices.
This isn’t the first time Red Lobster has found itself in hot water legally. They were previously found guilty of violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Their activities were found to be negatively affecting populations of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Because of the charge, the supplier was stripped of its sustainable fishery certificate. This guilty verdict also directly contradicts the company’s marketing message, which claims all products are sustainable.
11. Banana Boat
Banana Boat has come under fire for claims related to marine-related sustainability. Several of their “reef-safe” sunscreens actually contain harmful toxins that can damage coral reef environments.
Their sunscreen is made with avobenzone and octocrylene, which can cause coral bleaching and are toxic to other forms of marine life. The initial claims of greenwashing led to a reassessment of the sunscreen industry as a whole. Several other sunscreen companies are now reviewing the active components in their products to ensure they are not misleading the public.
Unilever made several big commitments, such as collecting and processing more plastic packing than it sells by 2025. An investigation by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) into Unilever’s sachet recycling efforts in Indonesia found that the widely celebrated recycling program was actually based on a controversial method of chemical recycling. This method was stopped after just two years.
The sachets consist of various materials that make them nearly impossible to recycle or reuse. The company, however, continues to be adamant about using them. Despite its commitments, the company has found itself in third place for the world’s largest plastic polluters. Unilever is also currently a funder of a massive incineration operation in Jakarta, Indonesia. The impact of such a project is massive. There are around 10 million people who live in Jakarta. The citizens already struggle with plastic waste and have to deal with it clogging their storm drains and being littered across the slums and shorelines. The incineration project does nothing to alleviate the already dirty air that hands over the city. Indonesia is also reportedly the second largest ocean polluter after China.
The fossil fuel giant changed its name to Beyond Petroleum and publicly added solar panels to its gas stations. In December 2019, though, an environmental group called ClientEarth filed a complaint against BP for misleading the public with advertisements that focused solely on BP’s low-carbon energy products when more than 90% of the company’s annual spending goes to oil and gas projects.
In 2018, Nestle released a public statement saying that it had “ambitions” for its packaging to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. Environmental groups and other critics were quick to observe that the company had not released any clear targets, a timeline to go with the claims, or any additional efforts to help facilitate recycling by consumers.
Greenpeace was quick to call Nestle out in a statement. “Nestlé’s statement on plastic packaging includes more of the same greenwashing baby steps to tackle a crisis it helped to create. It will not actually move the needle toward the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way, and sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world.” Nestle, along with Coca-Cola, has been named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row.
In 2018, Starbucks came out with its “straw-less lids” as part of its sustainability promise. The problem is that the new lids contain more plastic than the old lid and straw put together. The company never disputed this, but they did claim that the lids are made from polypropylene, a commonly accepted recyclable plastic that can be “captured in recycling infrastructure.”
Critics were quick to call Starbucks out, pointing out that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, so the company cannot reasonably assume that all of the lids are recycled.
IKEA was considered to be a great example of a sustainable company until June 2020, when the retailer was linked to illegal logging in Ukraine. According to the report, the wood certification scheme IKEA uses, Forest Stewardship Council, was labeled as an organization that greenwashes the timber industry. The council was accused of failing to catch IKEA’s sourcing of conflict wood and doing nothing to prevent it.
IKEA also built its “most sustainable store yet” in London in 2019 on top of another sustainable store that was demolished after just 17 years of use.
17. Fast Fashion Brands
Fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 are among the companies that have been accused of greenwashing over the years. These brands contribute to massive amounts of textile waste caused by the clothing industry. According to fashion non-profit ReMake, 80% of discarded textiles globally are incinerated or taken to a landfill. Only 20% is reused or recycled.
Fast fashion brands are notorious for advertising green initiatives, despite those initiatives being a very small part of their operations. In 2019, H&M launched a line of “green” clothing called “Conscious.” The company claimed that the clothes were made from “organic” cotton and recycled polyester. The line turned out to be nothing more than a greenwashing technique. The advertisements were labeled misleading because there is no legal definition for terms such as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.”