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How greenwashing fools us

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“Sustainable.”

“Environmentally friendly.”

“Naturally.”

We are surrounded by products that are made to sound ‘green’ and good. Greenwashing is everywhere. And according to a recent survey by a global consulting firm, it is also very effective. Worst of all, it works especially well on those who say they care about the environment.

Here’s how greenwashing can work and what you can do to mitigate its power.

They are not always outright lies.

By greenwashing I mean misleading claims by a company about its environmental performance. They are designed to mislead consumers.

“Research shows time and again that expressing green can be beneficial for companies and brands,” says Menno DT de Jong, professor of communication at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

De Jong told me that greenwashing is often characterized by incomplete or unverifiable claims. That makes them difficult to refute. “It’s very difficult for normal people to judge green claims,” ​​he said.

Even when the full picture is presented, de Jong said, the reality may not sink in for many consumers. “When confronted with third-party information that Green’s claims may not be entirely true, they may not be inclined to believe that the company is telling complete lies,” he said.

We are impressionable.

A consultancy called Behavioral Insights Team, based in the UK but with offices around the world, conducted that recent research in an effort to understand how vulnerable we are to greenwashing and whether we can learn to be more skeptical.

In an experiment in Australia, some 2,400 subjects were shown three advertisements from three fictitious energy companies.

One ad talked about a company’s green credentials. It showed a woman in a gray blazer walking in front of a skyscraper. “Our offices are green,” the ad reads, without saying anything about whether the energy company produces and sells fossil fuels.

A second ad featured a woman in a red blouse, smiling, and three light bulbs dangling. “How can you save energy?” the ad asked the viewer, offering a carbon footprint calculator. This ad made no claims about the company, just shifted the issue of energy conservation to the consumer.

A third ad from an energy company made claims about job creation, but said nothing about the environment.

More than half of the subjects in the experiment fell for it: 57 percent said the companies in the first two ads — one with the green office claim and the other with the carbon footprint calculator — had stronger “green credentials” compared with the third energy company to claim job creation. (Remember, they were all fictitious companies made up for the sake of this experiment.)

“We assume that everyone is rational, that an educated consumer questions the market,” said Ravi Dutta-Powell, who worked on the study. “That’s not happening.”

We can learn to distinguish, but it is difficult.

Dutta-Powell’s subjects were also randomly selected to receive “interventions” designed to vaccinate them against misinformation.

One group received information about greenwashing in general. Another group was invited to set up a deceptive marketing campaign for a fictional energy company, to basically play the role of greenwashers.

A third, the control group, received nothing beforehand. They just got to see the fake ads.

The two groups offered the inoculation were a little more “demanding,” as Dutta-Powell put it. But the difference was quite small. And it’s unclear how long the effects of the inoculation could last.

Governments are beginning to intervene to protect consumers.

In FranceAs of January 2023, companies promoting ‘carbon neutral’ claims must provide verifiable information to substantiate this.

The Norwegian Consumer Protection Agency recently, fast fashion giant H&M warned that the tool it used, known as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, “is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in their marketing.” (My colleague, Hiroko Tabuchi, wrote about the Higg Index this summer.)

And a UK government agency recently opened investigations into three fashion brands to scrutinize their green claims.

The largest possible crackdown on greenwashing has begun in Washington.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission looks at mutual funds that achieve high marks in environmental, social and governance metrics, also known as ESG. a statement from the Commision this spring.

In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.

Later in the year, we’ll take a closer look at the SEC’s efforts to tighten greenwashing standards. Stay tuned.


A climate law built to last: The legislation legally defines greenhouse gases as pollution, which will make it much more difficult to challenge new regulations in court.

The ‘sleeping giant’ of the law: The measure’s loan programs could breathe new life into new technologies that banks find too risky or that need a little more cash to get going.

An Amazon documentary: The Times spoke to Alex Pritz about his film “The Territory,” which takes viewers to the front lines of Brazil’s rainforest battle.

Follow wildfires in the west: We have current maps of wildfires and air quality in California, Oregon and the western United States.

Alaska fires: Lightning, drought and thawing tundra make fires more destructive. In the vast wilderness, firefighting is a major challenge.

Designing a better sheet: Researchers increased the yield of soy plants by making them more effective at photosynthesis. The findings hold promise for feeding a warming world.

Is renting clothes a sustainable fashion option, or is traditional shopping better? As always, it’s a complicated question. According to Vanessa Friedman, the Times chief fashion critic, the way to address the issue is to understand that every action and purchase will have an impact. You have to decide what, on balance, is the least harmful choice. Here’s some advice to help you figure it out.


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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read previous editions of the newsletter here.

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Credit…The New York Times