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Green Washing

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Green Washing

“We must have zero tolerance for net-zero greenwashing.” These remarks were made the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, during the launch of a report, titled ‘Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions’, by the organisation’s High-Level Expert Group, instituted in March this year. Referring to the recent net-zero commitments made by private companies and sovereigns, the Secretary-General observed that they had “varying levels of rigour and loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through.” The Secretary-General also urged all government leaders to provide non-state entities with a level playing field to transition to a just, net-zero future, advocating for strong political leadership for solving the climate crisis.
Since ‘greenwashing’ as a practice is prevalent enough to create concerns over climate goals getting completely undermined, and was considered serious enough for the UN Secretary-General to set up an expert group solely to look into this, it seems apt to have a look at the term to know what is greenwashing, and why is it dangerous.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to misleading the general public into believing that companies, sovereigns or civic administrators are doing more for the environment than they actually are. This may involve making a product or policy seem more environmentally friendly or less damaging than it is in reality. Many of these claims are unverifiable, misleading or dubious. While it helps in boosting the image of the entity, they do nothing in the fight against climate change. Several multinational corporations, including oil giants like Shell and BP, and Coca Cola have faced accusations of greenwashing.
Developed countries are often accused of greenwashing their normal business investments in developing countries by highlighting climate co-benefits of the financial flows, sometimes with very little justification.
In 1983, Jay Westerveld first got the idea for the term greenwashing after seeing a note in a hotel bathroom in Fiji, that encouraged hotel stayers to reuse their towels to save the environment and ecosystem of Fiji. At this time, however, the hotel was also expanding and building new bungalows. This gave him the idea for the term ‘greenwashing’.
Current definitions are:
The Cambridge Dictionary describes greenwashing as designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines greenwashing as “activities by a company or an organization that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment.”
How is it done?
Although several companies, cities, states and regions have committed to reaching Net Zero; in the absence of regulations, a lot of these pledges are not aligned with the science to achieving the same and do not have enough detail to be credible, the report notes.
Additionally, the inconsistent use of terms ‘net-zero’, ‘net-zero aligned’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘ecological’, among others, are not accompanied with satisfactory evidence to substantiate their claims. In April, the US Federal Trade Commission penalised retailers Kohl and Walmart $5.5 million for misleading customers about their home furnishing products being made of bamboo. In reality, they were made of rayon — a fibre made from cellulose whose manufacturing entails the use of harmful chemicals such as sodium hydroxide that are hazardous to the environment.
There are several general greenwashing techniques that organizations use today to help make a product or service appear more sustainable for the environment than it actually might be.
1. Less is more
This is perhaps the most common greenwashing example and is rooted in the genesis of the term greenwashing itself. When hotel chains advise guests that towels will not be washed daily in order to be greener, the idea is that less washing is better for the environment.
2. Efficiency claims
Another common example is claiming to be more efficient with energy consumption. By being more energy-efficient, the idea is that less energy needs to be produced, leading to less environmental impact. Automobile manufacturer Volkswagen was caught greenwashing with its diesel emissions scandal in 2015. In that incident, the company had fraudulently reported that its diesel engine vehicles were more fuel-efficient than they really were. The diesel fuel vehicles were marketed as being a more environmentally sustainable type of vehicle when, in fact, that was not the truth.
3. “Recycle this” approach
Greenwashing also occurs when an organization claims that one approach is better for the environment than another by implying that the new approach is somehow recyclable. For example, McDonald’s began to replace its plastic straws in 2019 with paper straws that the company described as being eco-friendly. It turned out that the paper straws were not recyclable and were not necessarily better than the alternative.
4. Green targets
Organizations and governments can come up with targets for sustainability that are publicly declared to make it appear as though they are doing the right thing for the environment. Targets on their own are nice goals to strive for, but they are little more than wishful thinking without actually achieving them.
Why does it happen?
It is done primarily for a company to either present itself as an ‘environment-friendly’ entity or for profit maximisation.
The latter could be achieved by either introducing a product, catering to the inherent demand for environment-friendly products, or, in certain instances, using the larger idea as a premise to cut down on certain operational logistics and providing consumer essentials.
“If greenwash premised upon low-quality net zero pledges is not addressed, it will undermine the efforts of genuine leaders, creating both confusion, cynicism and a failure to deliver urgent climate action,” the High-Level expert committee’s report states. It is, thus, necessary to establish a level-playing field and measures where actions correspond with stated ambitions, it points out.
Greenwashing presents a false picture of the progress being made on the climate change front, pushing the world towards disaster, while at the same time, rewarding entities for irresponsible behaviour. It has numerous effects on consumers, companies, green industries and the planet itself.
For consumers, there is a growing body of evidence that shows consumer sentiment is slanted toward being green and environmentally sustainable. Individuals by and large want to do the right thing and want to help mitigate the continued effects of climate change. When a company, product or service is caught or discovered to be greenwashing, there is a general sense of distrust that occurs. Consumers will no longer trust the brand or product in question, and might also begin to question other claims.
For companies engaged in greenwashing, consumers will likely choose other organizations that are more ethical. Greenwashing can degrade customer satisfaction, erode brand loyalty and potentially affect repeat purchases. Consumers will put their money in products and services that are not attempting to deceive them with greenwashing. Companies also run the risk of fines from government and regulatory agencies around the world.
For green industries, the risk of greenwashing is a lack of trust from consumers. If there is a lot of greenwashing, then consumers will simply not trust green claims from anyone — including legitimately green industries — as they will not know whom to trust.
Ultimately, the biggest effect of greenwashing is existential. Each act that an organization or individual doesn’t take with real green initiatives has a potential negative effect on the planet. Greenwashing masks the inaction of not taking steps to reduce environmental impact. With the effects of climate change continuing to manifest on humanity, there is no time to waste in taking steps to help improve sustainability such that humanity and Earth itself will continue to survive.
Challenges in Regulating
   · The processes and products that can potentially cut emissions are so many that it is practically impossible to monitor and verify all.
  · The processes, methodologies and institutions to measure, report, create standards, verify claims and grant certifications are still being set up.
   · A large number of organisations have sprung up claiming expertise in these areas and offering their services for a fee. Many of these organisations lack integrity and robustness, but their services are still availed by corporations because it makes them look good.
Credits and offsets
The trade in carbon credits comes under the scanner in any discussion on greenwashing. Carbon trade is a legitimate exercise. In fact, it is officially encouraged. Countries or firms that reduce emissions beyond their mandate are granted carbon credits, which can then be bought for money by entities that need it to achieve their targets. There was a carbon market under the Kyoto Protocol, and a new one is being created under the Paris Agreement as well.
But the scope of carbon markets has increased manifold since it was first conceptualised. Informal carbon markets also exist. There are now credits available for all kinds of activities — for growing trees, for planting a certain kind of crop, for installing energy-efficient equipment in office buildings. Basically, any activity that has the potential to reduce or avoid emissions can earn credits. The credits are often certified by unofficial third party companies and sold to others. Such transactions, particularly in informal, bilateral or voluntary markets, have been flagged for lack of integrity and double counting.
Even the official market is not immune to charges of double counting and greenwashing. Countries like India or Brazil had accumulated huge carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol and wanted these to be transitioned to the new market being set up under the Paris Agreement. But many developed countries resisted this, questioning the integrity of the credits and claiming they did not accurately represent reductions in emissions. Carbon offsets from forests are one of the most controversial.
The Way Forward
An expert group formed by the UN Secretary General has recommended, inter alia, that corporations pursuing net zero targets must not be allowed to make fresh investments in fossil fuels, must be asked to present short-term emission-reduction goals on the path to achieving net zero, and must bring an end to all activities that lead to deforestation. In addition, the corporations have been advised not to use offset mechanisms at the start of their journey to net-zero status.
The expert group has also recommended the creation of regulatory structures and standards as soon as possible.
While the measures are likely to curb these activities to some extent, it is also true that the entire architecture of global fight against climate change is based on trust. There are elements of measurement, reporting and verification, but as mentioned earlier, the vast array of activities makes it extremely difficult, if not entirely impossible, to police every process and product.

The writer is a member of staff.

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