The ever-pressing issue of climate change continues to rise up both the public and political agendas, and consumers, investors and businesses alike are looking further into how they can lessen their environmental impact. With time running out to prevent a potentially disastrous 2°C global temperature increase, industries and governments are under pressure to act now.
The tide has turned, and the green wave is engulfing almost every sector across the world. Indeed, some large corporations are already working towards reducing their impact: for instance, Unilever has reduced its carbon emissions by 39% per tonne of product manufactured since 2008, as well as taking steps to reduce its plastic waste. What’s more, in 2018 Kellogg’s and Nestle were among 250 brands that pledged to cut single-use plastic waste from operations by 2025, with plans to adopt 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging.
It’s not just companies that are doing what they can to reduce their environmental output – consumers are becoming increasingly conscientious about the products they buy and the brands they support. Indeed, a 2018 study by Futerra found that 88% of UK and US consumers wanted brands to help them become more environmentally friendly in their day-to-day lives. However, 43% felt that many companies actually made it harder for them to reduce their impact.
With the rise of consumer demand calling for businesses to adopt sustainable measures, an issue has become increasingly common: ‘greenwashing’. The practice of making false or misleading claims about a product or service’s green credentials (be it intentionally, or a mere mistake), greenwashing could potentially risk the commendable work done by businesses that actually has a positive impact upon the environment.
Although the phrase itself was initially coined in the 1980s, greenwashing is now more widespread than ever before. Indeed, a number of well-known brands have come under fire for claiming that their products and services are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. One such brand that has faced criticism is Starbucks – in 2008, the coffee chain made a commitment to serve 25% of its drinks in reusable cups by 2015, but this has since been revised to a target of serving 2.8% of its drinks in reusable cups by 2022. What’s more, following calls for a total ban on plastic straws, Starbucks introduced its ‘sustainable straw-less lids’, which actually contained more plastic by weight than the original straw and lid combination.
Any company that hopes to benefit commercially from making claims about the environmental impact of their products or services should be able to substantiate these claims, however there is no single watchdog in place dedicated to ensuring consumers are not led astray by misleading ‘green’ messages. It’s time for governments to put the necessary legislation in place not only to protect consumers from unproven green credentials, but to protect the environment too.
A first step for the Government could be to ensure that manufacturers of products labelled as ‘green’ conduct publicly available Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs). Whilst the Government would determine what is included in these assessments, it is essential that these review the end-of-life treatment of a product, as well as its usable life. Introducing clear ratings of how ‘green’ products are, from creation to disposal, would give consumers a better idea of the exact impact of the items they buy. Currently, manufacturers are under no obligation to conduct LCAs, but if we are to continue without any clear benchmarks for determining the sustainability of a product, the lack of clarity over how sustainable products are will persist.
It’s not just the end products that need to be addressed – indeed, the technologies that manufacture them could also help solve the climate crisis that we face. Improved regulation from such sustainable technologies could allow for these to be officially certified, avoiding them from being washed out by the ‘fakes’. Furthermore, incentivising the adoption of these sustainable technologies could accelerate uptake in traditionally conservative industries, such as by introducing carbon tax or emissions trading. As well as reassuring consumers, these approaches would also help ensure that a range of sectors can play a part in driving sustainability forwards.
There is little doubt as to the importance of reducing our impact on the planet, and both consumers and governments hold the key to driving change in business’ behaviour. If we are to tackle greenwashing and any resulting confusion head on, it is essential for governments worldwide to crack down on brands and industries alike and substantiate any claims of sustainability.