Many people want to live more consciously by being aware of what products they are buying. Companies respond to this by presenting themselves as sustainably as possible, but the green images do not always correspond to reality. “Some citizens are willing to be cheated.”
“Drive CO2-neutral,” says Shell. Saab’s new Bio Power engine is driven by nature. And Fiji sells the greenest water in the world. Are all these companies really that sustainable? “No, those are examples greenwashing‘, says Serena Daalmans, communications researcher at Radboud University. “It’s a marketing strategy where companies pretend to be greener than they actually are, for example by highlighting a small part of their activities. It’s nice that Fiji’s water is so green, but is it sustainable if they export that water to the whole world?
Greenwashing comes in many shapes and sizes. “Sometimes companies come up with outright inaccurate claims, but often they are more subtle. A beautiful nature photo can already give the impression that a company is involved in sustainability.” Quality labels and product labels can also be misleading. “Companies can add their own quality labels, there are few rules about it. That way, people who want to consume are deliberately misled.” There are already some reliable bodies with the Beter Leven quality label and the Fairtrade label, Daalmans emphasizes, but there is not yet one that is structurally involved in assessing companies ‘sustainability requirements.’
Recognizing greenwashing can therefore be quite difficult. “It requires a lot of research, and you have to be able to think critically. Most people will not realize how reliable a sustainability brand is when shopping for a day’s work. ‘ At the same time, some citizens are willing to be cheated, says Daalmans. ‘Many people have one intention-behavior gap, a difference between their beliefs and their behavior. Greenwashing does not help with that. Then people can think that they are doing enough by buying a product with a quality brand.
What can you be aware of? ‘First, see if a company makes a clear claim. A vague statement or a claim that they do not prove can indicate greenwashing ‘, Daalmans suggests. “Also pay attention to which part of a product is described as sustainable. In 2017, Shell introduced a water bottle made from recycled plastic. Very nice, but that does not make the rest of the production less polluting ‘. An irrelevant sustainability claim may also indicate greenwashing. “Then you look at a product that it is vegan is when it has always been. ‘
Daalmans cites the clothing brand Patagonia as a positive example. ‘Patagonia not only presents itself as a green company, but it is. The company is transparent about its activities and clearly explains why it makes certain claims. ‘ In that case, it is not about greenwashing, but about green marketing†
Radboud University also has sustainability high on the agenda. To prevent greenwashing, the university can take the transparency of companies like Patagonia as an example, Daalmans suggests. ‘First and foremost, the university is showing a great commitment to sustainability, and big steps are being taken, but there is still a lot to improve. For example, many products are still wrapped in plastic on campus. That’s okay, because not everything can be perfect at once, but as a university you need to be transparent about things that could be (even) better. That way, you stay away from greenwashing†
According to Daalmans, including sustainability in the curricula is one of the steps in the right direction. ‘In this way, you give the students the tools to think critically about sustainability during and after their studies and to get started with it themselves.’
This article was previously published on the Radboud Recharge website