Understand what "greenwashing" is and how to know if a company is trying to cheat you

Understand what “greenwashing” is and how to know if a company is trying to cheat you

“It’s more than a false advertisement,” says Marcos Philip Falcao, a professor in the Department of Management at the Federal Rural University of Pernambuco (UFRPE). “Because it’s not just me, as a consumer, that is being harmed. They are all Earthlings. Even inadvertently, I end up financing companies that are harming the planet,” and I went on to seek to contextualize what makes the practice of greenwashing so problematic. Together with other UFRPE professors and master’s student Sebastião de Freitas Neto – creator of the project – Marcos is one of the authors of a meta-analysis that delved into dozens of academic articles on greenwashing to organize knowledge of it.

Sometimes translated into Portuguese as “green make-up”, this is a series of strategies companies adopt to try to build a favorable image of their products and services by claiming that they are doing more for the environment than they actually do – often with the conscious aim of diverting consumers’ attention from practices that are not always virtuous.

As far as is known, the term first appeared in environmental jargon in 1986, in an article by American activist Jay Westervelt. He criticized in the text a hotel he stayed at during a trip to Samoa, which appealed to the environmental conscience of guests to avoid changing their towels too often on the grounds that this would save water. In addition to poor environmental outcomes in the context of a large hotel operation, the biggest beneficiaries will be hoteliers, who will reduce their costs. Hypocrisy scared environmentalists.

Consumers are more demanding

Nearly 40 years later, the temptation is growing to use fake environmental stands as a sales pitch. “We have seen that consumers are becoming more and more demanding [em relação às práticas socioambientais das empresas]’, says content specialist at the Akato Institute, Bruno Yamanaka. One by one, several studies have confirmed Bruno’s conception.

A 2015 Nielsen Media Research survey revealed that 66% of consumers globally would be willing to pay more for eco-friendly products. A 2017 survey by SPC Brasil showed that 71% of respondents preferred to buy from companies committed to social and environmental measures.

In partnership with the consultancy GlobeScan, Akatu itself collects information on the weight of social and environmental issues for Brazilian consumers through the Healthy and Sustainable Living Survey. According to the 2021 edition, more than 86% of Brazilians want to reduce their personal impact on the environment – more than the global average of 73% – and 60% are willing to pay more for products from brands that improve society and the environment. .

More consumers, higher prices. It is therefore not surprising that a large number of companies succumb to the temptation to “innovate” their products.

According to the “Mentira Verde” report, published by the Brazilian Institute for Consumer Protection (Idec) about three years ago, a survey evaluated 509 products from the hygiene, cosmetics, cleaning and household appliances sectors, sold in supermarkets in Rio and São Paulo . , whose designations contain at least one socio-environmental claim. Practically half (48%) practiced some form of green washing – in the household items category, the problem was more prevalent, present in three out of four products surveyed.

The problem is global. At the beginning of last year, the European Commission conducted a survey of the websites of companies in various industries to analyze the environmental claims of these companies. In 42% of cases, the information was considered exaggerated, false or misleading.

“The problem has a huge dimension and is growing and the answers to solving it are too timid in the face of consumer expectations,” says Rafael Arantes, Sustainable Consumption Coordinator at Idec, noting that brands do not always lie to consumers.

The most common problem that the Idec survey found was the lack of proof for claims made on product labels. “What companies do still shy away from proving that their practices are sustainable. Without this, it ends up being more of a marketing claim than a guarantee that their products are, in fact, sustainable,” he adds.

Lack of guidance from governments

One problem is that there is still a lack of clear guidance on what companies can and cannot do. “Although the Consumer Protection Act prohibits misleading advertising, it is general. We need specific legislation on [alegações ambientais]. “This is a long discussion and we are way behind in this debate,” says Professor Marcus Falcao, adding that more than one bill to that effect has already been introduced in Congress, but so far none of them have come forward.

Raphael also highlighted the lack of a body to regulate corporate environmental communications. “There is really no monitoring or treatment [da prática do greenwashing] by the Brazilian government,” he asserts.

Even outside of Brazil, understanding the issue is still in its infancy. It has not been a year since the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published “Guidance on Environmental Claims for Goods and Services”. Which codifies a series of principles that, if not abolished, reduce “the likelihood of companies deceiving consumers”.

Through the One Planet Network, the United Nations (UN) has created a working group focused on defining guidelines for communication with consumers for sustainable products and services.

The list helps to identify the phenomenon of green washing

One of the biggest difficulties in dealing with green laundry when faced with a supermarket shelf is the labyrinthine nature of the problem.

Between 2007 and 2010, Canadian consulting firm TerraChoice (later absorbed by UL Solutions) produced a list of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing,” creating a taxonomy of major greenwashing practices. The list has become a kind of informal reference for anyone interested in the topic and helps to identify problematic best practices:

1 – Disguise cost: When a product is suggested to be “green” based on a restricted set of traits, without taking into account other issues that are equal or more relevant.

Example: Paper manufacturers state that their products come from planted forests, but don’t mention the use of strong chemicals in the bleaching process.

2 – Lack of evidence: It commits when a company does not provide accessible evidence to support its environmental claims.

Example: Many products claim to contain recycled materials in their formulation without providing evidence.

3- Inaccuracy: It occurs when an environmental statement is so ill-defined or vague that its true meaning is not clear to consumers.

Example: Products that claim to be “natural” or “green” without explaining what they mean.

4- Inappropriateness: It’s the mistake companies make that make environmental claims that don’t matter because they are mandatory or already common practices.

Example: deodorants or aerosols that claim to be “CFC-free” even though CFC use has been banned for several years.

5- The lesser of two evils: When a particular example of a product category that is intrinsically unsustainable is categorized as “least harmful.”

Example: SUVs that claim to be less “drunk” than other cars in this class.

6- Lying: When an environmental claim is simply made up.

Example: Car manufacturers participating in DieselJet.

7- Worship of false labels: It arises when a product’s label includes words or pictures that give the impression that it has certifications that it does not actually have.

Examples: Companies that advertise that they do not test on animals and include images similar to approved seals.

If it ends there, it will be enough. But this, according to masters student Sebastiao Neto, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Developed as part of a master’s thesis at UFRPE, a meta-analysis of the scientific literature on greenwashing sought further refinement to classify the phenomenon.

According to him, the most common way is to innovate products and services through advertising campaigns or posters that contain claims or have been carried out loaded with images and symbols related to the environmental issue. It sums up: “At the product level, we have this problem which is the green labels and communications, full of images and sounds that refer to nature, and those slogans that say this product is eco-friendly without saying why.”

However, there is a second level of complexity, which is when companies introduce greenwashing into their business policies and practices. “When it comes to the company level, it becomes more difficult, because it requires looking at the reports and having the multidisciplinary technical knowledge to really understand them,” he continues.

“Companies are taking advantage of consumers’ ignorance. They put in positive data and the consumer ends up seeing only a portion,” says Ana Regina Bezerra Ribeiro, who was a co-supervisor at Sebastião who also signed the article.

Be careful and take a step back

Keeping your eye on it and always looking for inaccurate and/or suspicious claims seems to be the most important piece of advice so you don’t end up buying a pig in a poke. The main recommendation is a dose of skepticism.

“Of course, the ideal would be to provide all relevant information, but it is important for the consumer to play an active role and think about what they are buying,” says Bruno Yamanaka, advising particularly careful use of unclear language and phrases.

An Akatu representative also advises looking for recognized certifications when purchasing and researching whenever you come across an unfamiliar seal on a product label. “It may seem difficult, but as we get into the habit, we start to be more attentive,” he says. “There are a series of seals that have credibility and support, such as seals for organic production and energy efficiency,” says Raphael, of Idec.

Another way to try to avoid greenwash is to contact manufacturers’ customer service channels whenever you come across a product with claims that are hard to prove. “This is what we did [na pesquisa de 2019]It’s a very straightforward way of charging companies,” he says, adding that – in ESG times – this is also a way to pressure companies to improve their transparency.

Startup wants to help in this fight

All this takes time and patience from the consumer. But spotting instances of green washing can get easier. One of the goals of the work undertaken by the UFRPE researchers is specifically to develop a methodology that allows the identification of problematic practices.

The idea, called the Greenwashing Accusation Score, was one of those the Centelha program selected to receive funding and create a startup that would assess corporate communications and identify problematic situations. “It will not be a punitive tool, but a diagnostic tool, until you know your company’s position in terms of operations and products,” says Professor Anna.

Marcus Falcao admits that he still lacks the groundwork to get the idea on paper and that the group is working with students of a computing course to develop an algorithm capable of automating the process. “We are still testing to launch a prototype. We have two years of development ahead,” he admits.

If the project succeeds, it will be a major step forward to level the playing field for companies that take sustainability seriously and invest to make their products greener. “We need to catch the strong people and protect the good guys,” Sebastiao concludes.

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