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OPINION

More Brands Are ‘Greenwashing’ to Make Consumers Think They’re Being Eco-Friendly

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Irwin Fedriansyah

Data suggests that environmental consciousness in the United States is at an all-time high. In other words, more people care about protecting the planet than ever before, with more than half of the US population now thinking it's more important to safeguard the natural world than to grow the economy.

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This growing environmental awareness has a significant effect on the decisions people make in their everyday lives, such as grocery shopping. As a result, consumers in the United States are increasingly pressuring retailers and manufacturers to find greener methods of production.

Sadly, there will always be some companies who choose expediency over ethics, even if it means misleading their consumers. Some businesses prefer to greenwash. They virtue-signal about their eco-friendliness, but when you look more closely, you find their statements don't hold up.

In the American marketplace, greenwashing has become a serious problem. Consumers are left under false pretenses and their faith in companies' green credentials plummets as a result. Regrettably, it's on the rise, as more shoppers than ever before pay attention to the long-term viability of the goods and services they buy in an effort to reduce their impact on the planet. More and more businesses are making dubious claims about how environmentally friendly their products are in their marketing.

Questionable statements about green issues abound on the packaging and promotion of consumer goods like food. Accusations of greenwashing can do serious damage to a brand’s reputation. The FTC concluded in 2022 that a number of goods sold by Kohl's and Walmart, which had been marketed as ‘made from bamboo’, did not actually contain any bamboo. A classic case of greenwashing, caught out in this case by a regulator. The retailers were fined a total of $5.5 million. In another case, Hefty's Recycling Bags suffered an embarrassing episode when allegations emerged that their bags are not, in fact, recyclable.

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The marketing of products containing different vegetable oils is a hotspot for greenwashing. Manufacturers of all manner of products increasingly use the phrase ‘palm oil free’ to advertise their products as ‘environmentally friendly’. Research shows that a disproportionately large number of people (41%) view palm oil as 'environmentally unfriendly,' compared to those who feel the same way about other vegetable oils (such as soybean, rapeseed, sunflower, and olive). Unfortunately, that negative sentiment (stoked by brands) is not reflected in the reality.

Palm oil is much more land-efficient than those other oils. That means if a brand switches away from it to another oil – say, sunflower oil – they suddenly have to chop down a lot more trees to get the same amount of product. So, when a company boasts of having gone ‘palm oil free’, they are almost certainly causing more deforestation than they were before. Yet, they still use the ‘palm oil free’ label as a tool for greenwashing, suggesting to consumers that by sacrificing palm oil, they are somehow helping safeguard the natural world.

Some firms take this kind of greenwashing to extremes. Iceland, a UK grocery chain, collaborated with Greenpeace to create a TV ad depicting a cartoon orangutan whose jungle habitat is devastated thanks to deforestation in order to promote their palm oil boycott. Since then, Iceland has reversed its 'palm oil free' stance, and the commercial has been removed from screens for being too political.

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Instead of virtue-signaling with orangutan images and hoping consumers don't question their claims, businesses should be transparent about the environmental credentials (or otherwise) of their products. They get nowhere by pandering to eco-sensitivities and jumping on the latest bandwagon without thinking too hard about the real-world consequences, because it is only a matter of time before their claims are called out. Consumers are more perceptive than some brands assume, and they reward manufacturers who go out of their way to make a real difference in their supply chains and genuinely help roll back deforestation (which doesn't always align with what we might first think are the most environmentally friendly methods).

The increased interest in and concern for environmental concerns is being closely monitored by most large companies. As more customers insist that businesses make changes to better safeguard the environment, many have begun to do so. This means that businesses who engage in "greenwashing" in an effort to avoid the responsibility of providing sustainable products and services to their customers are doing themselves harm.

To make a genuine impact and safeguard the longevity of their business models, corporations must be considerably more forthright about the choices they make throughout production and across their supply chains, as well as the effects those choices have. If the present surge in environmental consciousness continues, it will soon be next to impossible for corporations like Walmart to engage in green virtue signaling without being called out.

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Rather than waiting until the situation becomes urgent, because customers discover they are being misled and start abandoning the offending brands en masse, they would be better off setting aside the environmental virtue-signaling and investing now in serious reforms to their supply chains if they want to make bold environmental claims. Greenwashing might seem like a great short-term fix to some companies, but is not profitable in the long term.

Jason Reed is a writer and broadcaster on politics and policy for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624

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