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Greenwashing: Why is it harmful to a Sustainable Future?

Viewing the world through green-tinted glasses

The pursuit of a more sustainable, more eco-friendly lifestyle is a goal that we all should strive for. Labels such as “harvested sustainably,” “biodegradable,” or “made from recycled goods” might make a product 10 times more attractive in your eyes. Even so, it is important to check up on the substance of their claims, and make sure that the company is providing hard data to back up what they have printed on a label.

What is greenwashing?

Corporate greenwashing refers to the practice of when businesses make claims about the sustainability of their products to distract their clients from their unsustainable conducts. By making their products seem more sustainable, customers are then baited into purchasing products under the guise that they are shopping ethically, when in reality they are feeding into a scheme that will do more harm to the environment than good, as the customer initially intended to do so.

A report conducted by the European Commission (EC) argues that 42% of claims made by a range of business sectors such as the fashion, cosmetic, and household equipment sectors exaggerate, or even falsify their claims in reference to their sustainability.

Greenwashing in the FMCG Sector

The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector are characterised products that sell quickly at relatively low cost. These goods are also called consumer packaged goods, and they have a short shelf life because of high consumer demand. Examples of goods sold in this sector include soft drinks or confections as they are perishable. These goods are purchased frequently, are consumed rapidly, are priced low, and are sold in large quantities.

Companies such as Unilever Indonesia have seen waves of steady growth and achieved a 16% increase in both revenue and profit in2012. Additionally, France-based cosmetics maker L'Oréal foresees such potential in Indonesia that it picked West Java as the location for its largest factory worldwide. Meanwhile, Indonesia’s largest food producer Indofood Sukses Makmur has boosted domestic sales and exports of its consumer products and is expanding into other emerging markets with strategic acquisitions in China and Brazil.

A recent case of greenwashing in Indonesia’s FMCG sector revolves around Sinar Mas Group, namely Asia Pulp & Paper (SMG/APP). Some of their claims include giving support to the conservation program of 106,000 hectares of the Senepis wildlife reserve, 10,000 hectares of the Taman Raja reserve, 172,000 hectares of the Giam Siak Kecil reserve, and the Kutai orangutan program. They’ve also made claims to secure a number of habitats. Sumatran tiger conservation. Despite the presence of such claims, most of the areas they’ve vowed to protect are already managed by the government or other national bodies. What this means is that involvement from SMG/APP is unnecessary and redundant, despite their appearance that they are doing something to help the Earth.

Rather than saving the local environment as they allegedly pledge to do so, SMG/APP is actually doing more harm than good towards it. SMG/APP destroys more tiger habitat each year than the legal allowances.

Greenwashing in the clothing industry

In this industry especially, greenwashing is particularly prevalent with its ties to fast-fashion. Fast fashion is characterized by its qualities of affordability, trendiness, as well as its evanescence. Because of this, the business model of selling mountains of clothing at cheap prices is what makes fast fashion dominate the fashion industry by causing garment consumption to skyrocket. Although some might refer to fast fashion as the ‘democratization’ of fashion (i.e. the latest styles are available to all customers), the environmental and ethical detriments outweigh this slight benefit on the scale of morality by miles.

While people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than in 2000, they only kept the clothes for half as long. This means that more and more clothing is being thrown in landfills or discarded through other environmentally unfriendly means.

According to the Pulse Report, only a total of 18% of clothing are re-used, or recycled. A shocking 57% are found to be in landfills, and a quarter of them end up getting incinerated.

Through the media, more and more people are becoming aware of the unethical and unsustainable means that fast-fashion companies are using for the procurement of all the materials and resources to continue their supply for a high demand of inexpensive garments. Clothing companies such as Zara, H&M, Uniqlo are known for their cheap, accessible and wide range of clothing, however many accusations have been thrown against them for making their products seem more sustainable and eco-friendly by the usage of phrases such as “100% organic cotton,” or “local.”

Despite such labels, the mark that the clothing industry leaves on our environment does not match what most of these companies claim. A simple pair of jeans requires a kilogram of cotton. And because cotton tends to be grown in dry environments, producing this kilo requires about 7,500–10,000 litres of water. That’s about 10 years’ worth of drinking water for one person. So although a pair of jeans might be ‘made out of recyclable material,’ the customer still has to take into account the resources that went into making that pair of jeans that aren’t balanced out by its ‘recyclable’ quality.

How to spot greenwashing

  • Look at the big picture

In the food industry, companies might label their products to be ‘low fat’ or ‘zero calories’ in an attempt to make their products appear healthier and safer for customer consumption. However, in many cases, this serves mainly to divert the attention of the customer from other underlying issues such as a high preservative or sugar content.

Similarly, many companies would try to use labels that make their products seem more environmentally friendly in order to deflect the customer’s attention from a particular aspect of the environment issue. For example, the label ‘100% recyclable’ might seem appealing at first, however, the recyclability of a product is only one of the many facets of the environmental issue. For example, the means that are used to procure the recyclable materials (e.g. forests might have had to be cut down in order to produce the recyclable materials that constitute the product) or the fact that recyclability is not always eco-friendly (i.e. the resources that go into recycling a product may sometimes outweigh the end product, and might cause more harm in the long term).

  • The power of statistics

Be wary of the false or exaggerated claims that companies make to make their products appear more eco-friendly! A report by the European Commission examined 344 eco-friendly claims made by companies in more detail and the results found that in more than half of the cases, the company did not provide sufficient information for consumers to judge the claim’s accuracy. What this means is that, the claims are simply leading the consumers to believe the claims made instead of giving data for the consumers themselves to judge the accuracy of the eco=friendly claims that are made by the company.

In 37% of the cases, the claim included vague and general statements such as “conscious”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable” which aimed to convey the unsubstantiated impression to consumers that a product did not harm the environment. Moreover, in 59% of cases, the trader had not provided easily accessible evidence to support its claim, meaning that even if the company had some evidence or data to back up their claim, this information was not made clear to the general public, making it harder to rely on the accuracy of the statements of sustainability as claimed by the companies.

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