Big brands like Coca Cola found guilty of 'greenwashing', what is this and why is it problematic?

Written By: Moohita Kaur Garg | Updated: Jul 01, 2022, 11:42 PM IST

As per new research, major corporations like Coca-Cola and Unilever are deceiving customers by engaging in "greenwashing".  The Changing Markets Foundation (CMF) points out that "the number of products labelled as sustainable or green has increased exponentially in recent years, with many household brands guilty of greenwashing. Yet, as businesses claim progress towards sustainability, emissions continue to rise, extraction increases, and overproduction spirals."

What exactly is Greenwashing?

The process of fabricating or exaggerating a product, service, brand, or even an entire company's green credentials is known as "greenwashing."

Greenwashing is an issue in and of itself, but it also hurts progressive businesses and is viewed as unethical. Businesses who are really attempting to better the world can be hurt by those that are making false or deceptive claims.

(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


Do brands really use this strategy?

Unfortunately, yes. Greenwashing is becoming more prevalent and can be found in a variety of industries, including food and fashion as well as energy, electronics, and finance. 

It can be subtle, such as by using logos and colours or by leaving out specific facts to make a product appear more ecologically friendly than it actually is. Or it could appear as broad, ambiguous product claims like "carbon-neutral," "sustainable," or "responsible."


How do people even fall for it?

"Greenwashing lulls us into a false sense of security – a smokescreen that conceals the continued exploitation of the planet and allows those responsible to get away with it."

As Plastic Planet co-founder Sian Sutherland said "Plastic is now a very powerful and emotional word". With people growing more aware of the harmful effects of plastic, the word has come to signify a huge amount of guilt too. Brands are just banking on this guilt.

(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


How prevalent is the practice?

In a global review of nearly 500 websites promoting goods and services across a range of industries, including apparel, cosmetics, and food, conducted by The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) and released in January 2021, it was discovered that 40 per cent of green claims made to consumers might be deceptive.

According to research conducted by Changing Markets Foundation in 2021 for their report Synthetics Anonymous, 59 per cent of green claims made by fashion manufacturers are deceptive or unsupported, per UK's Competition and Markets Authority criteria. This was as high as 90 per cent or more for some brands.

(Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


Why does it matter?

Greenwashing gives us a false sense of security by disguising ongoing environmental abuse and letting those in charge get away with it.

The main issue with greenwashing is that it tricks us into thinking things are changing when, in fact, things are staying the same or getting worse. 

For instance, the number of products in the fashion industry that are considered sustainable or green has grown significantly in recent years, but the industry's impact on the environment has continued to rise due. From rising emissions, increased reliance on synthetic materials made from fossil fuels, skyrocketing overconsumption, to a growing waste crisis, this impact is getting darker by the day. 


Big example: Coca Cola

One big example presented in the Changing Markets Foundation report is that of Coca-Cola. According to the report, Coca-Cola has spent millions on advertising an innovation. It claims that its bottles contain 25 per cent marine plastic, but does not disclose the fact that it is the largest producer of plastic pollution in the world.

As per Break Free From Plastic brand audit, the Coca-Cola Company is the world’s worst corporate plastic polluter for the fourth year in a row. 


Big example: SKIMS by Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian's SKIMS has been accused of engaging in this technique after it was discovered that their packaging did not correspond with the environmental efforts it claimed to make, particularly with regard to plastic.

It's interesting to note that SKIMS items are sent to clients in "film packaging" that features the words "I AM NOT PLASTIC" in large, black text.
However, the triangular logo, a recycling symbol, reveals that the packaging is composed of type-4 plastic, or low-density polyethylene, inside of which the number "4" appears (LDPE)