greenwash.jpgTimes have changed since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. While we still rush to embrace new technologies, it would be fair to say that most consumers have grown more intelligent and discerning today and think about the effect their usage of any product has on the environment. Of course, reports of Global Warming, rising sea levels, depleting ozone layer etc. are served before the masses with every issue of the daily newspaper and you may attribute this newfound concern for the environment to an instinctive need for self-preservation. Bottom-line being: we are more aware.
Sadly though, the same concern has not found its way into the big plans of manufacturers whose products are routinely blamed for all sorts of environmental pollution. While some have made sincere efforts to find cost-effective ways of improving the environmental performance of their products; many of the less-conscientious ones have conveniently taken the easy way out. In order to appeal to the before mentioned, more aware, consumers, these companies have resorted to ‘creative’ advertising instead. Advertising, long misused to fool gullible consumers, has reared its head once again in this all-new avatar- GREENWASHING.

If I ask, you would not have much difficulty recalling advertisements incorporating the word ‘green’ in their texts. That’s exactly what is being referred to here. Formally defined as “the act of misleading purchasers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”, greenwashing is not as prevalent in India as in the West, but then how long is it before we blindly make everything Western a part of our own culture? The practice started out in the late 80’s with phrases such as ‘essentially non-toxic, earth smart, ozone-safe…’ being applied indiscriminately to products. These claims were largely unsubstantiated and it was not long before authorities made advertising laws stricter and which required manufacturers to provide specific details explaining any environmental claim without overstating an environmental attribute or benefit. Soon enough, such generic terms as “essentially non-toxic” and “environmentally safe” began to decrease. Of course, as you might expect, greenwashing is re-emerging in the current scenario, where given a choice, a consumer would buy an eco-friendly product over the other.
The advertisers have become savvier and now use cleverer methods to fool customers. Rarely, some continue to blatantly mislead buyers about the actual environmental safety of their product by claiming to meet the environmental principles of some International Standards. However, greenwashing is usually subtler. Sometimes, irrelevant claims are made about the ‘green-ness’ of a product. Case in point; CFCs have been banned in aerosol products since 1978, yet some of these same aerosol product manufacturers continue to claim loudly that their products are CFC-free. Another method labeled as the ‘hidden trade-off’ makes (true) claims about the cleanliness of the facilities used to manufacture the product so that the relative environmental danger of the product itself is hidden. For example, even if the factory manufacturing a cleaning product uses renewable energy, the cleaning products itself may be using many toxicants. Another greenwashing method worth mentioning is quite interesting as far as innovation goes. This one uses relativity in a deceptive guise. By marketing a product as the most environmentally sound in its category, it leads us to believe that it is the most efficient among all instances of that product. The commonest example is that of SUVs. Given their gigantic CO2 emissions and low mileage, it is easy to figure out that even the ‘cleanest’ SUV is a poor choice if you want to conserve the environment. An average mid-size car would be a much better option.
As can be seen, greenwashing takes many, difficult to identify forms and in the future, this malicious practice targeting the consumers’ best efforts to protect the environment is only sure to grow. So it is up to us to make even more responsible choices while shopping. WE must make legitimate efforts, even online if we must, to verify whether a product advertised as green is truly so or if the clever advertisers have succeeded again. It may sound speculative but only such effort on our part can make sure that our habitat, Earth will make it into the next century…