Greenwashing or nature-rinsing is an understandably hot-button topic splashed across all the news cycles these days. And it should be. Purposely misleading the public, i.e., making false claims that your products are environmentally friendly when they are not, is an exploitative tactic that preys upon well-meaning individuals. Likewise, green labels, brown paper bag-toned boxes, and the wanton use of words like natural or organic are often misleading.*All food is, after all, organic--derived from carbon-based life. However, greenwashing isn't always as cut and dry as that, and there are fringe benefits garnered from it-- all be they somewhat cring-ishly acquired.
The Greenwashing Trickle-Down Effect
"My personal opinion is these little steps are positive because it forces other organisations to do something as opposed to nothing at all. A small percentage change at a large company still has a significant "impact and ripple effect on the rest of the industry to review their approach to business." ~Erica Charles, British School of Fashion
All publicity may or may not be good, but when it comes to greenwashing, it could be doing more good than harm. The "trickle-down" effect is real--especially regarding industry-wide changes. When an industry leader broadcasts a green trend, start-ups and small businesses often take up the cause too. Moreover, they are almost always more genuine and receptive to actual change than those using it only for PR.
An Example of the Greenwashing Trickle-Down Effect
The symbolism behind McDonald's ditching their plastic straws in Europe is undeniable and was a good show of solidarity for the EU's single-use plastic ban. It was a laudable step towards sustainability, even though it did not go as planned. (Their paper straws proved too thick to be recycled). Removed from its origin, the trickle-down was sacrosanct, even if the intention was less than pure.
Greenswashing for Normalizing Green Practices
When we see luxury car companies "logo-izing" pictures of nature to sell more carbon-emitting cars, it is a real head-scratcher. But, even getting green into the conversation up until recently has been challenging. In a perfect world, conviction and action would back up the loud and dubious corporate claims of "good for the environment." The real world is messier. Some things considered, greenwashing could be construed as an imperfect way of normalizing sustainable practices and amplifying conversations. In other words: If an organization wants to spend millions of dollars making people aware that turtles are swimming around with our trash in their noses? Let 'em. #teamturtle
The Repercussions of Greenwashing
This is not to let offenders off the hook. Businesses that greenwash face quantifiable penalties: financial and legal. Just ask Shell, whose "Drive Carbon Neutral" campaign was removed from the Netherlands after nine law students filed a complaint against them for greenwashing. Then there is the court of public opinion. In this scenario, greenwashers risk paying dearly: drops in share price, loss of public trust, and favorability among investors.
The Problem Bigger Than Greenwashing
Consequences aside, the biggest reason we should care less about greenwashing is that a more nefarious player lurks on the environmental scene. One that is all too conveniently shadowed by what boils down to poorly thought-out or deceptive PR practices. It is something fueled by ignorance, fraught with deception, and hamstringing real environmental progress: carbon capitalism. But first, let's talk about the carbon offsetting myth.
The Carbon Offsetting Myth
Carbon offsetting is essentially a brownie point system in which companies buy the right to do "bad" environmental deeds by doing "good" ones. If this system of accumulating and then subsequently bartering good acts for bad sounds familiar, it's because you have probably heard of it in the ancient Catholic Church practices and Chaucer's scathing rebuke of them in "The Pardoner's Tale." The primary issue with carbon offsetting is, in many ways, a myth.
The Peril of the Carbon Offsetting Myth
Carbon offsetting. Is it all bad? No, but it is a dangerously capitalistic way of looking at climate change action. Furthermore, it is widely misunderstood by the public and subsequently abused ( intentionally or not )by the companies employing it. What makes carbon offsetting monumentally more dangerous than greenwashing is its impotence. It's where the proverbial buck stops well short of a direly needed goal. A perceived quid pro quo in which a company atones for and continues with its destructive emissions behaviors instead of changing them: business as usual.
For Climate Change, Business as Usual Will Not Do
Sufficed to say many, if not most, of the polluting behaviors that got us into a climate crisis will need to cease for any meaningful change to occur. Carbon offsetting completely circumvents this. Carbon offsetting, carbon nuetrality, and net-zero are all words for emissions ideas or practices based on pseudo-science. Also, the overarching assumption is flawed. They reason that one "good thing" equals one "bad thing," which is seldom true. Offset forestry is an excellent example of this.
More Trees are Good, Right?
"For its practical effect, telling people to plant trees to reduce global warming is like telling them to drink more water to keep rising sea levels down." ~Oliver Rackham, Cambridge University
There are scores of examples where an act of climate penance does little to pardon the offense. Offset forestry, for instance. It sounds like a lovely act of contrition: swathes of emerald treetops sucking up and trapping CO2 like giant sponges. The issue is--it doesn't work like that. Fossil carbon is inert while it sits in the ground. Once out of the ground, even when absorbed by trees, fossil carbon joins the world's active carbon pool, tipping the balance for millennia until it is reabsorbed. More to the point, global ecosystems (even small ones) are far too complex to predict short or long-term results accurately. And most of the carbon capitalists bartering carbon services like offset forestry and others know this.
Carbon Offsetting and Carbon Capitalists
"The idea of offsetting one's carbon footprint by cutting or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in one place to make up for emissions elsewhere has grown into an enormous industry." ~NYT
The true bad actors in this shell game are the carbon capitalists. Companies who buy and sell environmental favors like the Corleone family. They are the most significant danger to the larger cause. Also, theirs is a business model growing in popularity and profit at the peril of our collectively ailing climate. McKinsey estimates that the market for carbon credits could grow to more than $50 billion by 2030. Beyond enormous profits from dubious science, carbon capitalism also serves as a sleight of hand for the biggest polluters. It allows them to say, "look over here" while continuing to cash in on preserving a deadly status quo.
So while greenwashing is a terrible way to do business, at the end of the day, it's only the lollipop at the doctor's office, not the snake oil cure. Carbon capitalism and the companies capitalizing on it are monumentally more dangerous. They perpetuated the action of inaction--an atonement the rest of the world cannot afford.