The Greenwashers

Learn what greenwashing is and how to identify and avoid companies that are merely paying lip service to sustainability.
Updated on
June 7, 2024
Greenwashing: A Cautionary Tale
Table of Contents

The IPCC knows how to shut a party down. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change walked in, turned on the ugly lights and said, “humanity, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here anymore because you’re destroying the planet.”  

The findings are clear and it’s not good. Climate change is here and humans are quote, “unequivocally” to blame.

The IPCC is made up of hundreds of volunteer scientists who assess the evidence from a myriad of scientific and socio-economic publications. Here at Arbor, a sustainable data company, where some of the same data is analyzed to provide you with our own sustainability and impact scores, these scientists are basically our superheroes.

Founded in 1988, the IPCC has released six assessment reports in total. The most recent and bleakest report (the first of three parts) outlines the physical science of climate change and the impact and ways human influence needs to rapidly shift to mitigate the irreversible damage we have already done –told you it was bleak. The previous report, released in 2013, set a global standard for climate action and was the foundation for accords like the UNFCCC Paris Agreement. This legally binding and internationally recognized agreement was signed by world leaders and used by society, policy makers and multinational corporations as a benchmark for reaching science-based targets to reduce our collective carbon emissions and to limit the rising temperature of the planet by 1.5 degrees celsius.

196 parties including the world's biggest polluters like the US and China –the two of them representing 40% of global carbon emissions– had signed onto the Paris Agreement and have used it as one of the many ways in which they bolster their sustainability initiatives. And part of that deal, is the claim that they will reduce their emissions to keep global warming at 1.5 degrees by 2030. So how has that been going? Well, according to the IPCC, that by 2030 no matter what we do, we are going to overshoot that mark. Are these claims just a bunch of smoke and mirrors? This is where we start digging into the bogus sustainability claims and broader meaning of greenwashing.

So what exactly is greenwashing? Greenwashing is an attempt to sway public perception that a company has implemented environmentally conscious policies and is driven to change their business model to hide a less than clean environmental record. And claiming to adhere to an internationally recognized agreement is a good way to sweep their dirty carbon footprints under the rug. And it works! A 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. Among millennials, that number jumps to 72%.

Back to the Paris Agreement. The steps needed by countries to reduce emissions is through mega shifts towards clean and renewable energy and through a massive overhaul in many of the most polluting industries like, natural gas, coal, livestock, agriculture and this author’s personal favourite: the global fashion and textile industry. All of these industries are guilty of greenwashing, but as the most consumer-facing example, the fashion industry is where the average person is most likely to see advertisements for and make routine purchases. And the fashion industry is full of experts on swaying our purchasing decisions and using the right marketing tools at the right time to get us to indulge without the added climate guilt.  

In an interview with Vogue Scandinavia’s first issue, Greta Thunberg called-out brands for greenwashing:

“The fashion industry is a huge contributor to the climate-and ecological emergency, not to mention its impact on the countless workers and communities who are being exploited around the world in order for some to enjoy fast fashion that many treat as disposables.

Many are making it look as if the fashion industry is starting to take responsibility, by spending fantasy amounts on campaigns where they portray themselves as ”sustainable”, ”ethical”, ”green”, ”climate neutral” and ”fair”. But let’s be clear: This is almost never anything but pure green washing. You cannot mass produce fashion or consume ”sustainably” as the world is shaped today. That is one of the many reasons why we will need a system change.”

Taking a look at the three categories through a data-focused lense and classification of the Your Arbor impact values of People, Planet, and Employees, here are some examples of greenwashing in each category made by some of the biggest and most influential companies.

People & Greenwashing

When crafty marketing jargon is used to make broad claims of sustainability there is always someone that pays the price. And that initial price is usually paid by those at the front of the supply chain. Protecting human rights is fundamental in the pursuit of sustainability. And companies are all too quick to proclaim their commitment to human rights throughout their supply chain. Take Nike –who scored a 3/5 for Human Rights on the Your Arbor index– for example. According to their Human Rights and Labor Compliance Standards they “strongly believe and are committed to respecting human rights. It is not only the right thing to do, it also drives our success by allowing people’s full potential to be realized. Nike recognizes there is no finish line when it comes to respect for human rights. We will continue to create equal playing fields for all.”

As per the same standard, they claim to “look” at human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Rights at Work ​​and “consider” the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Sure, anyone besides an evil supervillain would agree with the UN when it comes to human rights, but merely looking and considering are arguably the most hand-offs of the action verbs and are a far cry from more participatory verbs like, acting and doing.

And according to a 2020 investigation by the NGO The Australian Strategic Policy Institute into forced labor camps in the Xinjiang region of China, Nike along with over 80 household brands such as Apple, Samsung, and the Gap are guilty of profiting off the backs of the forced labour of the Uyghur people and other ethic minority groups.

A prime example of a greenwashing claim that hits the folks on the factory ground was Walmart’s refusal to sign the Bangladesh Accord. This accord on building and fire safety in Bangladesh was ratified after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 in response to the devastating collapse that killed 1134 workers in a factory where Walmart goods have been produced. Since 2005, over 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh have died because of fire and safety disasters in the workplace. Instead of signing the accord, Walmart drafted their own non-legally binding accord on building safety in Bangladesh. On paper it looks similar but instead of transparency and accountability, Walmart decided to perform its own inspections and regulations like imperialistically negligent landlords who instead of fixing the foundation just paint over the cracks.

The Bangladesh accord is set to expire at the end of August 2021, and many of the original brands that signed including Zara, Uniqlo, and H&M, have yet to re-sign. The impact of the accord has led to over 140,000 safety renovations in 1,500 garment factories and improved the working conditions of the largest economic sector of Bangladesh.

But without being legally bound to uphold the bare minimum of working conditions, brands that have the biggest presence in the country can go back to protecting their bottomline.

Planet & Greenwashing

Another example occurs when a company makes a positive environmental claim about a product, but fails to mention larger negative factors. For instance, making clothing with organic cotton but using harmful dyes in the process. The dying process of clothing and other textiles is laden with toxic chemicals and is found to be one of the worst environmental polluters. According to one study, “The wastewater from textile plants is classified as the most polluting of all the industrial sectors. In addition, the increased demand for textile products and the proportional increase in their production, and the use of synthetic dyes have together contributed to dye wastewater becoming one of the substantial sources of severe pollution problems in current times.”

And unless a company uses organic cotton that is certified by GOTS (read about our coverage of GOTS here) they are under no obligation to ensure the use of environmentally-friendly dyes.  

Swiping claims of sustainability through terms like “natural”, “organic”, and “conscious”  are ways in which companies pull the organic cotton over the consumer’s eyes.

Signing up to meeting Science-Based Targets is another way companies can make it seem like they are taking actionable steps by setting a “target” in what they call the ‘Race to Zero’.

They ask companies to publicly commit to a reduction in emissions and to set a net-zero carbon emissions target.

“To hold off some of the worst climate impacts, and avoid irreversible damage to our societies, economies and the natural world, we must hold temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This requires halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and hitting net-zero emissions by 2050.”

An ambitious and seemingly attainable goal, but unlike the Paris Agreement, is not legally binding. Other than the public statement and a “commitment”, these goals are at the behest of self-regulating of the signing corporations' claims of emissions reductions and lack of external accountability without third party verification. And just like most first graders, multinational corporations should not be checking their own homework.

Another example of greenwashing that can seem like a revolving door of claims that are borderline pointless is investing in RECs and carbon off-setting. We have covered RECs in our posts about Aritzia and Lululemon so here is a recap for you on both:

By investing in off-sets and RECs, heavy-hitting fast fashion brands like Aritzia – that manufacture garments in a myriad of facilities overseas and then ship and distribute their product all over North America– are able to continue to produce and pollute in the same capacity because these off-sets and credit schemes usually take place outside of their production’s line of fire.

There is no oversight process required to keep the use of RECs accountable. Once they are bought and sold, the credit itself can be traced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is going directly to fund a renewable power source.

Carbon offsetting is a way for companies to invest in green energy initiatives to balance out their own carbon footprints. This step is typically done to reduce carbon emissions outside of a company’s direct business operations or supply chains. With the recent IPCC revelations, it is clearer than our atmosphere that shuffling around emissions and energy isn’t going to cut it.

Employees and Greenwashing

Recognizing diversity and representation are integral to corporate ethics, but inclusivity at the crux of every aspect of operations is what makes a brand truly sustainable.

Neocolonial aspects of social responsibility, ethics, and diversity are common avenues for corporate greenwashing. Marginalized folks are routinely exploited through a framework of appropriation and virtue signalling. Take for example Pride Month. For the month of June, banks, police forces, Mortgage brokers, the NFL  –you name it– are examples of corporations and organizations that are guilty of co-opting the symbology of Pride in a 31-day long show of solidarity for the LGBTQ2S+ community for profit.

The notoriously bro-centric tech industry is a good place to look at the stats and corporate lingo used around diversity and inclusion. According to a 2020 write up in the Harvard Business Review, the tech industry has attempted to make improvements in the name of social justice with promises to fight racism, and increase hiring equity.

“Consider the case of Google, which has been among the more transparent when it comes to its challenges. Its proportion of employees from underrepresented backgrounds barely budged over the period between 2014 and 2018. In the meantime, since 2016, it has cycled through three chief diversity officers. Google’s 2020 annual diversity report shows some improvement, but is still far from any semblance of balance: 5.5% of employees identify as Black or Black and any other race, and 6.6% identify as Latinx or Latinx and any other race, and 32.5% employees identify as women. Google is not atypical; its industry peers have similarly skewed statistics. Amazon and Apple show relatively higher proportions of Black and Latinx employees because of the greater representation of such communities in the retail and warehousing units of these companies.

A look into Google’s 2021 Diversity and Inclusion Report, their hiring stats by gender for the year state that 66.6% of global employees are male identifying and 33.7% are female identifying –a 1% increase from their 2020 report.

Virtue signalling and appropriating aren’t by definition forms of greenwashing but are arguably equally relevant. But if a brand cannot fight for and honour the rights of all races, genders, and orientations within its own walls, how can it be presumed to fight for equity in the world outside of it?

Flowery claims of adherence to agreements, targets, and non-third-party verified goals are not enough to cool the planet. We need robust, legitimate, and transparent implementation of change to corporate business and profit models. Not environmental and social corporate wokeness. Businesses and governments need to work in tandem to address climate change and human rights abuses and take actionable measures to put regulations in place.

Thanks for reading!
The Greenwashers