As sustainability becomes more popular, companies are looking to capitalize on the increased interest. However, many companies, especially large conglomerates, will fool their consumer base into thinking they have changed their practices. This is so common that it has a name — greenwashing.
Marketing teams can take advantage of the sustainability hype to sell products with clever packaging, including buzzwords, and some multimillion-dollar campaigns to convince consumers they are the “good guys.”
Greenwashing ranges from minor lies to manufactured stories — all to profit off sustainability doing none of the hard work. Sustainability is very difficult to achieve, especially for large companies that have been operating in an unethical manner for decades. Instead, these companies rely on marketing campaigns and the naivety of their consumers.
Multinational conglomerates are some of the worst offenders in greenwashing. Thousands of brands fall under these conglomerates, extending to all corners of the globe. In the age of eco-friendly products, conglomerates have been able to profit off sustainability without putting in the work. Unilever, one of the biggest companies in the world, owns thousands of brands ranging from Dove soap to Ben & Jerry’s.
Unilever owns a handful of brands that are marketed to be sustainable, even though Unilever has been exposed countless times for unsustainable and unthical practices. However, most consumers don’t follow Unilever’s machinations and can easily be fooled by their sustainability branding.
Love, Beauty, and Planet is a personal care brand sold to consumers looking for a more eco-friendly alternative. These consumers may choose Love, Beauty, and Planet over Dove, thinking that the former is way more sustainable. Unbeknownst to them, the two share a parent company in Unilever. Love, Beauty, and Planet are branded as sustainable, even though there is no rigorous data to show that. If anything, Love, Beauty, and Planet can only be as sustainable as Unilever itself — that is to say, not very much.
Unilever can profit off a consumer’s ignorance easily with clever branding. The same soap could be sold in a green box and suddenly consumers believe it to be sustainable. Most consumers don’t understand these conglomerates and are fooled into buying unsustainable products. Unilever can profit both off Dove, which is still purchased even though it’s not branded sustainable, and Love, Beauty, and Planet, which appeals to the eco-conscious market.
With every oil spill, we are reminded of the never-ending destruction oil companies cause. Not only do fossil fuels contribute to global warming, but oil extraction destroys natural habitats. For every oil spill, an oil company will quickly make itself out to be a savior. After BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP has been constantly trying to persuade consumers into thinking this oil magnate is combating climate change.
The list of crimes done by the oil industry is endless, and they are not immune to greenwashing. BP, formerly British Petroleum, changed its name to Beyond Petroleum and ran ads suggesting that they were making a great effort to invest in clean energy.
Ads ran featuring algae farms and solar arrays, pretending that BP is transitioning away from fossil fuels. Later it was revealed that BP still spends 96% of its budget on oil and gas, rather than low-carbon alternatives.
Oil companies have been actively ruining the planet for decades, and they still want us to believe that they are not the villain of this story. It’s hard to tell how consumers react to ad campaigns like the BP clean energy campaign. Some may fall for it, while others may shake their heads in disbelief.
One thing for sure is that an oil company can't avoid greenwashing. An oil company can never be environmentally friendly, and any time they try to convince us otherwise is one of the greatest offenses of greenwashing.
Reducing single-use plastic is becoming a marker of sustainability, even though it never tells the complete story of a product’s sustainability. An environmentalist’s first step is buying a reusable water bottle instead of a disposable one. It saves money and reduces the demand for single-use plastic bottles.
However, this threatens the beverage industry, and giants like Coca-Cola and Pepsi rely on single-use plastic bottles to sell their products. Instead of finding a creative solution to the plastic bottle problem, beverage companies have fooled their consumers into thinking that smaller caps and slimmer bottles are better for the environment.
Coca-Cola has an extensive campaign to convince consumers they are environmentally friendly, despite being the top plastic polluter in the world. In February 2021, Coca-Cola announced its new 100% recycled bottle, made from 100% post-consumer waste.
To the unknowing eye, this sounds fantastic — plastic pollution solved. However, this action is, at best, too little too late, and at worst, avoiding the actual problem. Coca-Cola wants to prove to us they are sustainable, but decades of evidence show otherwise. This new bottle is trying to tell consumers it’s okay to buy Coca-Cola because the plastic is recycled.
But that recycled plastic needs to be disposed of properly afterwards, and Coca-Cola doesn’t have any programs to collect bottles for reuse. Coca-Cola hasn’t done away with all plastic pollution through these bottles, they’ve only delayed the inevitable disposal of a small percentage of plastic.
The aforementioned companies are by no means the only companies guilty of greenwashing. However, these examples show the pervasive tendency towards greenwashing in multinational mega-corporations.
These companies hold tremendous power, but resist change in the face of a new challenge. Instead of fooling customers into thinking they are sustainable, they could make comprehensive sustainability initiatives that will effect change — and then they wouldn’t have to lie about it.
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