Monday , June 17 2024

Brands need to come clean on greenwashing

This article was first published here.

With every passing year, the public becomes more eco-conscious than ever before.

We are becoming more and more aware of the impact we have on the planet through climate change, pollution, and the desecration of the natural world. That’s a good thing.

Sadly, though, there are some brands who seem keener to cover up the environmentally harmful practices in their supply chains, rather than spending the time and money necessary to do anything about them.

Supermarket chain Tesco may have engaged in ‘greenwashing’ – trying to convince customers that products or services are more environmentally friendly than they actually are through spurious claims in marketing.

An investigation from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that Tesco had failed to demonstrate its Plant Chef burgers and plant protein-based foods were better for the planet than the meat equivalents, despite seeming to make that claim in its advertising.

Similarly, the ASA rebuked Alpro and Oatly, two companies producing non-dairy milk, for things you might call greenwashing. The ASA investigated five claims made by Oatly following more than 100 complaints, dishing out ad bans and cautioning the company to properly support any future claims.

Almond milk brand Alpro was given a similar warning after the ASA took issue with adverts it took out on the sides of buses which read ‘Next stop, your recipe to a healthier planet!’ and ‘Good for the planet, good for you!’ to promote their almond milk, despite the impact its production has on the environment.

Those examples were picked up by the ASA, but there are plenty of other cases of greenwashing which fly under the radar. For example, many brands like to boast that their products are ‘palm oil free’. This is because, in the eyes of many, producing palm oil fuels deforestation.

But the reality is not that simple. When a brand quits palm oil, they have to switch to another oil to replace it (soybean, rapeseed, olive, coconut, and so on) all of which are less land-efficient, meaning you have to cut down a lot more trees to get the same amount of product.

The result is that a ‘palm oil free’ product probably causes more deforestation than one which uses palm oil, not less. This is a classic case of greenwashing. Understandably, most people don’t spend hours researching oilseed yields when doing their weekly shopping, so they will be unaware of the nuance here. It seems likely that many people will see the ‘palm oil free’ labelling and interpret that as meaning deforestation has been curbed and some orangutans have been saved. The opposite is true.

Consumers are being misled, because brands would rather take the easy way out by switching oils and shouting about how green they are, without taking the time to interrogate the facts and truly invest in sustainable practices. There has been research on this which draws attention to the scale of the problem.

A study conducted by an organisation called the For Free Choice Institute analysed dozens of food items which boast about being ‘palm oil free’ and found that they were consistently less sustainable (and higher in saturated fats) than comparable alternative products. We are being led up the garden path by the marketing here.

The fact that environmental awareness is on the up is a good start, but it is not enough on its own to put a stop to humanity’s damaging impact on the natural world, let alone start to reverse it (such as through reforestation).

Brands who look to the short term only by trying to trick consumers through greenwashing and hoping people don’t notice their environmental impact is not going to work for much longer.

Consumers are beginning to wise up to this playbook, and the regulatory authorities will probably not be far behind. The walls are closing in on greenwashing.

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