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Greenwashing – What it is and why we need to call it out when it happens



Whether or not you’ve heard of it, you’ve seen it in action: it’s in the news, your friends have shared it on Facebook, and it influences the ads you see every day. The term was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in 1986 as a reaction to hotel signs encouraging the reuse of towels as a means to preserve the environment. Reusing a towel hardly puts a dent in a hotel’s energy and water usage, but the impression of caring about the environment yields the benefits of positive PR and lower housekeeping costs. 

Greenwashing describes the practice of using misleading advertising or campaigning to paint an entity as environmentally-conscious in order to sell themselves, and their product, to you. As sneaky and underhanded as this sounds, it happens way too often… because it works. As public recognition of the realities of climate change grows, corporations are well aware that a reputation for environmental stewardship pays off.

The latest global consumer surveys by Nielsen – a leading information and measurement company – highlight the public’s increasing demands for corporate sustainability: 81% of responders admit that a company’s commitment to the environment factors heavily into where they spend their money.[1] Consumer preferences often spur industry-wide change and shouldn’t be taken lightly. We’ve seen this most recently in the outcries for bans of single-use plastics such as straws and grocery bags. The idea is that if the market for these products drops on a large-enough scale, the industries responsible will be forced to accommodate our demands. 

Last July, Starbucks announced their decision to tear away from plastic straws – an entirely laudable move if they hadn’t replaced them with plastic sipping lids. To make it all a little bit juicier, the new covers seem to use more plastic than the original straw-and-lid combo.[2] This begs the question: what was the point? Granted, the new lids are more easily recycled than the straws, but solving one plastic issue by throwing more plastic at it is a questionable move at best, and one that we’d expect an industry juggernaut like Starbucks to have planned out better. Even if we entertain the idea that Starbucks’ initiative had pure intentions, this sort of misguided campaigning has become the norm for companies cashing in on greenwashing. 

Natural gas comes to mind as another example. You may have seen the ads littered around subway stops and bombarding the news, touting its “clean” potential and environmental benefits over traditional fuel and coal. Sure, burning natural gas for energy releases half as much CO2 when we’re talking about coal or gasoline, but it’s not really “clean” in the same way that solar and hydro power are clean, eh?

There’s just no winning when we’re presented with two unsavory options and forced to choose the lesser of two evils, yet this is the scenario we constantly find ourselves in. Fewer companies are willing to maintain a level of transparency that satisfies the eco-conscious consumer. Patagonia, an outdoors equipment and lifestyle company, for example, has always maintained environmental stewardship as a top priority. To this end, they openly acknowledge when and where they fall short, and that’s all we’re really looking for in a company: accountability and honesty when it comes to their relationship with our planet. 

For Keep Gaia Wild, sustainability isn’t just a tenet but the entire mission statement. We exist to provide convenient, non-wasteful alternatives to the single-use products woven into our everyday lives. Aside from providing the tools, we aim to pass along knowledge to those eager to learn how to reduce their environmental footprint. 

[1] “Sustainable shoppers buy the change they wish to see in the world.” The Nielsen Company, 8 November 2018. 

[2] A. Mahdawi. “Starbucks is banning straws, but is it really a big win for the environment?” The Guardian, 23 July 2018.