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May 28, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Greenwashing: It’s Not Easy Being a Conscious Consumer

You stride into Countdown, armed with dual reusable tote bags in your hands and an irrepressible love of the planet in your heart. You’re still a little twitchy from all the fair-trade Peoples Coffee flowing through your veins, which is just as well because you’re going to need caffeine-addled reflexes to polish off your list and still make it to your post-punk band practice on time. As you reach for a packet of Greggs rubbed thyme, your eyes are drawn to an attractive packet made from 100% recycled unbleached board. The “ECO” labelling ensnares and beguiles your trendy Newtown heartstrings. Later that evening, as you prepare a (vegan) mushroom risotto, you open the packet to find with dismay that beneath the seductive recycled cardboard box, your thyme is sealed in a plastic zip-lock bag. It suddenly strikes you that the Greggs herbs in your pantry are bagged in paper, despite the lack of eco-friendly fanfare. You weep gently into your risotto and reflect on how easily you’re wooed by the colour green.

Scenes like this are commonplace in a market saturated with eco-branding. Most of us care about the environment, but it’s not always easy to make informed ethical choices on the fly. To make the best of our limited time and information, we take mental shortcuts by drawing on common symbols and features of eco-friendly products to make educated guesses.

Marketers are not unaware of these daily snap-decisions that we make. Their paychecks depend on their ability to circumvent our rationality and tap directly into our most primal subconscious associations. That’s why a drink with a dramatic effect on the world’s obesity epidemic (Coca-Cola) is marketed to us by hyper-attractive twenty-something-year-olds “opening happiness” in their swimwear, rather than by a nutritionist extolling its wondrous health benefits. The language and symbols matter profoundly – they make us feel things beneath the scrutiny of our consciousness.

Marketing that exaggerates a company’s eco-credentials is popularly known as “greenwashing”. One notorious example from the 1980s saw American oil giant Chevron run an advertising campaign featuring grizzly bears hibernating through oil drilling in winter and waking up to find untouched verdant pasturelands in summer. Chevron were rewarded for their efforts by a 10 percent hike in sales among those who saw the commercials, and a 22 percent rise among previously averse “socially conscious” consumers. A poll of Californians two years later found Chevron was the oil company trusted most to look after the environment. To make the point clear: the commercials successfully convinced the public of Chevron’s environmental credentials using vague depictions of oil’s peaceful coexistence with nature, despite presenting no evidence of existing or new initiatives to rein in their catastrophic environmental footprint. The crux of greenwashing is hiring a marketing team to paint your product as “sustainable”, rather than hiring someone to ensure that it legitimately is.

If you’re a commerce student reading this with admiration and you’re keen to get your piece of the organic, vegan pie, here’s my top tips for wooing the environmentalists:
(i) Use vague fluffy-sounding language. Who doesn’t love a good proclamation of “natural!” or “eco-friendly!” Many of these terms are loosely regulated in New Zealand, so no need to worry about running into trouble. Better yet, try couching your claims in half-truths, by drawing attention to irrelevant eco-friendly features of your product and away from the real issues. As Ecostore founder Malcolm Rand once quipped, “Nuclear waste is biodegradable – it just takes half a million years to decompose”.

(ii) Style yourself an eco-label that gives the impression of a third-party endorsement. You’re in good company here – 32 percent of “green” products surveyed by environmental marketing agency TerraChoice in 2010 were rocking an unsubstantiated logo. But be careful not to get caught! In 2012, Dole Bananas were issued with a compliance notice warning they were in breach of the Fair Trading Act in relation to their “Ethical Choice” marketing scheme. This prestigious Nobel Prize of conscious consumerism was bestowed upon Dole Bananas by Dole Bananas with no clear criteria on what exactly was ethical about the ethical choice (better luck next time, Dole).

(iii) Frolicking animals. Everyone loves a good frolicking animal.

(iv) Remember that time you decked out your river-polluting factory with energy-efficient bulbs? Better let the world know your company is now socially woke. No need to restructure your supply chain or anything, that sounds difficult.

At this point of the article, the Newtownites are tugging their dungaree straps in despair. “This is impossible,” you mutter despondently to your risotto. “I don’t have time to research every single company! How is anyone supposed to be a conscious consumer if there is a whole industry employed to subvert our better judgement!”

Excellent question. For starters, we can trust well-recognised environmental certifications, such as Environmental Choice, carboNZero, Forest Stewardship Council, and Energy Star. These certifications are awarded externally against transparent criteria and can take the guesswork out of ethical consumerism. Another big plus to the eco-karma of food products in particular is the label “Product of New Zealand”, meaning the ingredients were grown locally and hence skipped a hefty dose of jet fuel emissions. The phrase “Made in New Zealand”, by contrast, means ingredients may have been grown overseas, but were processed domestically. By looking closer at details like these, we reward ethical businesses with our patronage and abstain from supporting those that breach our trust with greenwashing.

Of course, the most effective counter to greenwashing is changing the structures of business that make it more attractive to sacrifice sustainability for the sake of profit. Many business leaders are sympathetic to environmental causes but find it difficult to uphold a responsibility to mitigate them when pressed with more concrete and institutionalised demands, such as the return-on-investment imperative from their shareholders. Business models need to have sustainability at the core of their design, because we cannot have a healthy economy if our ecosystem, which provides us with all of our resources, can no longer support us.

At a governmental level, greenwashing is tackled with regulations and enforcement. The Advertising Standards Authority sets self-regulatory codes for advertisers to uphold voluntarily, while the Commerce Commission are responsible for investigating breaches of the Fair Trading Act, which prohibits businesses from using substantiated claims and false representation in their marketing. These bodies rely upon an active base of consumers taking the time to make complaints.

These regulatory mechanisms are valuable, but they fail to address a fundamental issue: that businesses currently have more incentive to “green” their marketing campaigns than to “green” their business models. This will only change when the government sets robust regulations that prevent businesses from talking the talk without walking the walk, and removes barriers which stop them from genuinely committing to sustainability. Fortunately there is hope on the horizon: The upcoming Zero Carbon Bill for example, to be introduced to Parliament this October, means New Zealand is commiting to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. The Bill makes Government legally obligated to design its policy in ways that enable New Zealanders to reduce their carbon footprints, in particular breaking down barriers for businesses to do so. Investors will be encouraged to place their money in low-carbon projects not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they can see there is no money to be made in the sunset years of dirty industry.

Contacting your local MPs, submitting during public consultations, and advocating for policies that create structural change is far more effective way in combatting greenwashing than subjecting yourself to hours of research into each brand’s business practices. It may even help to redeem the honour you lost that one time when you forgot your supermarket tote bags five weeks in a row.
So next time you find yourself in the aisles of Countdown seduced by the tender image of dolphins cavorting happily across a sea of blue-dyed plastic wrapping, I hope you’ll find the will to pause, check for that Environmental Choice logo, and give it a second thought. You are joined by millions of conscious consumers worldwide who collectively reward and punish businesses for how authentically they uphold environmental values. And remember, while we can all certainly do better in our personal lives, individual decisions are ultimately made within a context. By supporting structural policy change, we can ensure the incentives guiding countless decisions every day do not give undue preference to the profit motives of private entities with resources to burn.

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