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Eco-friendly or illusion: the dangers of greenwashing

The environmental crisis poses an existential threat to human life on this planet. Yet in our hyper-consumerist society, the cycles of capitalism don’t sleep. As people try to make their lifestyles greener, companies are adapting to our society’s demand for eco-friendly products. But this presents a paradox to large-scale product-based companies. Those who are commercial actors beyond immediate local levels inherently pollute and cause environmental damage.

To overcome this to any degree they must attempt to minimise waste, use eco-conscious ways of distribution and attempt to offset their carbon footprint. Some companies have successfully done this, even to the extent of acknowledging the damaging capitalist cycle; others may be pretending to care.

Many companies have been accused of spending large amounts of money on marketing campaigns to present an image of themselves as ‘green’ and to control the narrative surrounding how environmentally friendly their practices are. This is called ‘greenwashing’, and is being used by corporations to ensure sales and profit margins within a market that is slowly gaining environmental awareness and an increase in demand for ethical products. Shell is an example of this kind of conglomerates that many believe to have greenwashed its methods.

Shell is one of the largest oil and natural gas suppliers in the world, yet it has also spent millions on curating an image of shifting their focus to renewable energy and reducing their general emissions. Marketing campaigns speak of new found devotion to developing ethical energy sources and reforestation. The company’s website has several pages outlining how it is improving its techniques to lessen the chance of spills or environmental damage alongside their focus on improving air quality and usage of fresh water. 

But many have noted that Shell’s website fails to mention that it is the ninth largest corporate producer of ‘greenhouse’ gases. The marketing campaigns may be concealing the large amount of lobbying Shell has done over the past decades in both the EU and the USA to limit environmental policies and ensure they could maintain a large financial yield. Shell is also a member of the Global Climate Coalition, a group of oil companies which spent over a decade manufacturing controversy surrounding global warming and disseminating misinformation about scientific consensus, the effects of which can still be felt today with the strong climate change denier community. 

In total contrast is the outdoor equipment and clothing company Patagonia. As a business whose products are designed to be used within nature there is an obvious paradigm between Patagonia’s business model and its desire to protect the environment. Recognising the importance of becoming eco-friendly, Patagonia acknowledged its limitations as a producer and realised that, no matter the reduction, there will still be pollution and waste from its distribution and development of products. So they sought to minimise this as much as possible, as well as to encourage customers to repair products instead of replacing them. 

Campaigns like ‘Worn Wear’ show how instead of buying brand new, repairing an item is good for the environment and can also add character. Patagonia also ran marketing strategies with slogans such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ (in reference to their own product) to raise awareness around the dangers of consumerism. Despite their best efforts, these environmental policies are still laced with the underlying need for the company to sell products; if anything these campaigns can seem patronising and hypocritical as Patagonia’s ultimate aim is still likely to be attracting more customers. 

When purchasing products, many consumers now seek out those which are best for the planet, at least when it is affordable to do so. However, it is important to be aware of when companies could be selling us a positive perception of themselves which in actual fact they may be contributing to this destruction. Though there is progress within certain companies, like Patagonia, who are trying to enact positive change in the commercial world, there remains an underlying problem. Our consumer society has always put profit before people. It has always put sales before the safety of the planet. It might be time for that to change. 

Image: Marco Verch via flickr.com