What is it, and how do You spot it?

We all want to buy better – to buy greener products that have less impact on our natural environment. But to sell us stuff companies must market their products and their business in ways we’ll accept, even if it’s harming our futures.

Greenwashing is marketing that tries to convince you that what you’re buying is better, when in fact the product still has negative effects, and even the core of what the business does is still harmful to our futures.

Both products and businesses can be Greenwashed.

Companies need a social licence to operate. Society has to approve of how a company runs to allow it to sell its goods and services, it has to be a social norm. Remove that social licence, and profits tumble. A great example is Joe Lycett’s expose of Shell, and how they market their brand, here on All4

Companies can gain social licence by appearing to be supported by trusted brands like museums, universities and art events, or by taking part in events which ask critical questions of the effects of doing business – perhaps even effects they cause. For example, oil and gas companies will host events asking what the role of student activism is in tackling climate change – which they cause. They will seek to align their purpose with a popular science like archaeology, or with particular groups like artists, charities or young people.

Businesses will try and externalise costs like packaging and pollution to us and to the wider environment, and then sponsor litter pick-ups – of their packaging, or make art out of it, and generally try to deflect blame from themselves on to consumers, or show they’re trying to tackle the problem. They’ll associate themselves with environmental causes, like Carlsberg as a distraction as they continue business.

The Arts is especially vulnerable to Greenwashing. Budgets are tight, the will to do something good is there, sometimes egos can be stoked up. The offer of even a small slice of funding can be tempting, in return for the use of a logo on marketing, or even just for the company to say they’ve worked with a great arts brand. Mel Evans sets this out well in Arts Wash

Sometimes it’s obvious: corporations like BP sponsor events like Sunken Cities at the British Museum, deeply ironic as using fossil fuels hastens sea level rise, partly due to warming expanding seas, and partly melting land ice.

Fashion is a key battleground for Greenwashing. Companies, desperate to keep us buying resort to tactics like using recycled plastic bottles to make clothes, but these have their own problems The only way to solve the problem is to make less.

Even simply being invited onto a campus or event can add legitimacy to a corporation and their business plan. Any company with a dodgy product will gladly attend an event – what is said is almost immaterial, they have been invited, there is a debate on the ‘evidence’ and they are part of the solution.

This is particularly appealing to academics who wish to have an academic, open argument on key issues, to offer their students all the perspectives, and to look open to all views. It is difficult for senior managers to turn down, as they cannot be seen to disrupt the economy, or to be ‘political’. Sometimes it’s just the ego-trip of being asked to work with a major corporation or institution.

What can you do?

Be academically rigorous: is there still a debate on this issue?
Examine lifecycles of products
Ask if the company is ethical throughout its supply chain
Question statistics and glossy brochures
Are you being misdirected? For example are tiny ethical investments hiding large unethical investments?
Form groups to monitor who is invited onto campus
Ask the difficult questions – why are they here, and what’s in it for them?
Ask, is this legitimate, are they propping up their social licence to operate?
Do respect academic freedoms
Be disruptive and constructive
If a company coming to speak here ask: Why here? Why now? Why Them?
If you’re considering buying something, consider buying nothing at all.

Help and Support

You can seek out groups highlighting Greenwashing: Liberate Tate was one of the first, Culture Unstained and BP or not BP another.

Read up and find groups out there to help you, and students and staff who feel the same.

Check out independent ethical rankings, for example this one on banking.