False alternatives and impostures: the case of greenwashing

THE greenwashing is an advertising technique which consists of touting in an undue (or simply exaggerated) manner the ecological merits of a product, service or company. The term is derived from the word whitewashing, whitening, and can therefore be translated into French as “ecological image whitening”. Rather than changing its arsenal of advertising arguments, it is its production practices that the business world should modify.

The emergence of environmental concerns over the last few decades has pushed the business world to adapt, with varying degrees of good faith and effectiveness. The energy, automobile, food and clothing sectors are the first to be targeted for their ecological and social impact. Among these impacts: the depletion of natural resources, pollution of soil, water and air (with both local and global consequences), and social conflicts caused by land grabbing, destruction of the living environment or sources of income of residents or the working conditions of the local workforce. Citizens' confidence in the business world, punctuated by numerous scandals (Bhopal, Erika, etc.)[1]“ 5 environmental disasters that led to the arrival of CSR ", rse-pro.com/environment-rse-65, is no longer what it was in the last century. Companies are now forced to be accountable, no longer only to their shareholders, but also to consumers, political authorities and the justice system. To respond to these concerns, some companies have reviewed their strategy and their production and supply chain through an informed choice of subcontractors. We have thus seen the emergence of specifications and internal policies for “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) and “due diligence”. These voluntary policies integrate the concepts of sustainable development, respect for human rights and environmental protection and give rise to annual reports evaluating the social and environmental impacts of the company's activity, detailing set objectives and results. In Belgium, the network Business & Society brings together pioneering entrepreneurs engaged in such a process. However, voices are being raised to denounce the communication that companies make around their initiatives to reduce ecological and social impact. Not that these changes are not welcome or that communication around these new objectives and progress in this area is undesirable. But because it clearly appears that many advertising campaigns and opportunistic marketing strategies abuse ecological and ethical arguments, simply because these terms meet consumer expectations. You just have to go shopping to see that the adjective “natural” and images of family farms invade the packaging of food products, at the risk of emptying these symbols of all substance. The phenomenon has grown to such an extent that the Anglo-Saxon world has coined the terms greenwashing And fairwashing (the “ethical” equivalent of this new type of advertising lie). The challenge for citizens today is therefore to distinguish between real and false alternatives to our model of production of goods and services. How to spot the greenwashing ? It is not a question of citizens transforming themselves into experts, of evaluating themselves the ecological and social impacts of each stage of the production chain of a product. This is precisely the whole point of CSR reports (although caution is required) and the monitoring work carried out by associations like Greenpeace Or PurchaseACT (“clean clothes” campaign). This first notably carries out investigative work based on the following criteria[2]stopgreenwash.org/criteria :
  1. Inconsistency. A promotion of an environmental product or program when the company's main activity is fundamentally polluting or unsustainable (this is typically the example of "green" cars).
  2. Diversion. When the company places excessive emphasis on an environmental measure in order to divert attention from a pollution problem, or when the campaign mobilizes a larger budget than the measure presented.
  3. Hypocrisy. When a company communicates about its “green” commitments while at the same time carrying out lobbying work to curb laws and regulations regarding pollution (the same reasoning applies to the philanthropic actions of companies which, on the other hand, do not not sufficient efforts to reduce their negative social impact).
  4. Opportunism. Or the art of touting improvements that have been imposed by new legal standards, for example when an industry has had to change its procedures or has been ordered to clean up a site and then presents it as an act of its own initiative.
Before this work of comparison between actions and words, it is possible to identify certain misinformation yourself. We often cite as distinctive signs of a campaign of greenwashing the techniques :
  • disproportionate promise – when a product is presented as completely ecological when only one of its elements or only one aspect of its life cycle is;
  • the vague message – absence of evidence or insufficient information which does not make it possible to ensure the validity of the approach or the ecological advantage of the product;
  • and overly suggestive visuals – leaves, trees, wind turbines and animals on a green background, with no direct link to the product or company policy.
The authors of such advertisements are awarded in France the Pinocchio prize. On an initiative of Friends of the Earth, in partnership with the Center for Research and Information for Development (CRID), this anti-award rewards GDF Suez this year as “the company having carried out the most abusive and misleading communication campaign with regard to its actual activities”.
Make responsible choices? Independent labels are one of the best ways for consumers to ensure compliance with a certain number of criteria. Unfortunately, their proliferation leads to great confusion. The Belgian organization ecoconso has published a brochure listing the different labels used in the trade[3]www.ecoconso.be/IMG/pdf/labels_logos_pictos.pdf and collaborated with Netwerk Bewust Verbruiken the creation of a database of labels and pictograms detailing the criteria and procedures for controlling them[4]www.infolabel.be. Knowing them helps you avoid being confused by the self-assigned labels and evocative logos that some brands use on their packaging. Collaborations between NGOs and companies are also good indicators of taking responsibility, provided that the NGO is independent and recognized. These collaborations do not mean that all of the company's products have a neutral impact, but they are a sign that work is being done to reduce negative impacts, with the supervision of an external and independent organization with real expertise in environmental matters. Going beyond packaging The appropriation of ecological and ethical vocabulary by marketing clearly proves the potential influence of civil society on the industry. Citizens are therefore well placed to exert pressure on the government, particularly at the European level, in order to see the emergence of a normative framework and binding rules for businesses. In parallel with progress in terms of CSR and corporate accountability, the standards surrounding labeling must also be strengthened. Consumers should have access to clear and independent information on the production conditions of what they buy. For example, the European regulation concerning compulsory labeling of foodstuffs, which came into force on December 13, 2014, aims to provide consumers with “essential, readable and understandable information to purchase products with full knowledge of the facts”. . But “ecological, social and ethical considerations” only appear in the general objectives of the regulation, but nowhere in the mandatory information. And yet, the European Ecolabel is issued to a growing number of products in areas as diverse as clothing, tourist accommodation, domestic appliances and paper products. These two measures can serve as milestones for mandatory environmental display, based on the energy label model, which would allow consumers to compare products with each other. Finally, advertising messages should be regulated more strictly in order to better regulate the use of terms such as “natural 100%”, “organic” or “ecological”. THE greenwashing as a phenomenon is above all a symptom, the sign that the themes of environmental preservation and sustainability are increasingly permeating contemporary minds. A significant number of consumers have become aware of their share of responsibility for all energy consumption involved in the production, transport, transformation and elimination of the goods consumed. Businesses have clearly understood these concerns. It is time for them to respond in a more consistent manner, by modifying their practices beyond the packaging. Céline Remy Researcher at Justice and Peace



1 “ 5 environmental disasters that led to the arrival of CSR ", rse-pro.com/environment-rse-65
2 stopgreenwash.org/criteria
3 www.ecoconso.be/IMG/pdf/labels_logos_pictos.pdf
4 www.infolabel.be

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