Going green or greenwashing? Your favourite brands are lying to you – here’s how.
By Kaylee Mountford
With the urgent threat of the climate crisis looming over us, the act of becoming more sustainable is at the forefront of most people’s minds. Over the last century alone, global temperatures have risen by at least 0.74ºC (John Urry, 2009:85), causing an increased frequency and severity in extreme weather disasters. Ulrich Beck’s risk society thesis sates that in the modern world, risks as such are the consequences of human activity. (Beck, 1986). For too long, the effects of climate change have been ignored and pushed aside for the next generation to deal with, however the detrimental effects of the climate crisis are now visible in our lifetime, paving way for an apocalyptic future, thus today more than ever before, individuals recognise the need for rapid climate action.
Discourse surrounding climate change draws upon the bilateral structure vs agency debate. For decades, being climate conscious has often involved calculating one’s carbon footprint. In response to this, people have made ethical changes to their lifestyle by recycling, shopping second-hand and reducing their meat and dairy consumption. This aids the agency side of the debate, suggesting that society is no more than individuals. Although this is a step in the right direction, the emphasis on individual responsibility to change the world is otherwise known as victim blaming, a stance that large corporations often strategically promote, to deflect any responsibility away from themselves, despite the Carbon Majors 2017 report revealing that just 100 corporations were responsible for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. This stance aids the structure perspective of the debate.
Fossil fuel companies know that they are accelerating the climate crisis, but they also overwhelmingly recognise that change needed to prevent global climate catastrophe poses an existential risk to their business models. That’s why, rather than taking responsibility for burning fossil fuels and publicising the risks, many companies employ a strategy called greenwashing to claim social responsibility.
But what exactly is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is an environmental publicity tactic employed by corporations, will actively deceive, and spread misinformation to in a bid to appear sustainable towards their consumers. They deceive their consumers by convincing them that their products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly. A company might employ greenwashing tactics for several reasons including, but not limited to, rivalling their competitors, and staying relevant within the consumer market, to gain social desirability, to minimise their corporate social responsibility without needing to actively change their business model and due to the societal pressures of the risk society model. (Beck, 1986).
The past few decades have seen a shift in public attitudes towards the climate crisis, thus it is important that corporations adjust their image accordingly to avoid the losing their consumers. Often, companies that employ greenwashing tactics do not really care about the environment and are trying to stay popular amongst their consumers within the competitive world of capitalism, this is also known as performance activism. “Going green” thus becomes a mere trend to help line the pockets of your favourite brands. Take Starbucks for example, and their reusable cup, which is wrapped in plastic packaging. Whilst on the surface your favourite brand is going green and offering a sustainable alternative to disposable cups, the manufacturing process of the reusable cups does more harm than good, thus it is another ploy to trick their consumers into giving the brand more money. In 2019, Starbucks partnered with other industry giants to support the NextGen Cup Challenge, which called on innovators to create a biodegradable cup. To this day, Starbucks have not followed through with this.
So how are your favourite brands getting away with this?
The current capitalist society provides the perfect breeding ground for an apocalyptic future. It thrives on exploitation of not only people, but the earths resources. The inherent values of capitalism are simply not compatible with the actions required to combat climate change and corporations have too much power. “Modern bourgeois society, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” (Engels and Marx, 1848).
There is no way to take down our capitalist society, but we can stop enabling corporations’ lies through exposing such disinformation via journalists, advertising agencies, social media and politicians who can hold industry giants accountable.