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How greenwashing fools us

“Sustainable.”

“Eco-friendly.”

“Natural.”

We’re surrounded by products that are made to sound “green” and good. Greenwashing is everywhere. And, according to a recent study by a global consulting firm, it’s also very effective. Worst of all, it works especially well on those who say they are concerned about the environment.

Here’s how greenwashing can work, and what can be done to blunt its power.

It’s not always outright lies.

By greenwashing, I mean misleading claims made by a company about its environmental credentials. They’re designed to hoodwink consumers.

“Research shows, again and again, that expressing greenness can be beneficial for companies and brands,” said Menno D.T. de Jong, a communications professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

De Jong told me that greenwashing is often characterized by claims that are incomplete or unverifiable. That makes them difficult to disprove. “It is very hard for normal people to evaluate green claims,” he said.

Even when presented with the full picture, de Jong said, reality might not sink in for many consumers. “When they are confronted with third-party information that the green claims may not be entirely true, they may not be inclined to believe that the company is telling complete lies,” he said.

We’re impressionable.

A consulting firm called Behavioral Insights Team, which is based in Britain but has offices around the world, carried out that recent study in an effort to understand how vulnerable we are to greenwashing and whether we can learn to be more skeptical.

In an experiment carried out in Australia, roughly 2,400 subjects were shown three ads for three fictitious energy companies.

One ad talked up a company’s green credentials. It showed a woman in a gray blazer walking in front of a skyscraper. “Our offices are green,” the ad read, without saying anything about whether the energy company produces and sells fossil fuels.

A second ad featured a woman in a red blouse, smiling, and three dangling light bulbs. “How can you save energy?” the ad asked the viewer, and offered a carbon footprint calculator. This ad didn’t make any claims about the company, but merely deflected the question of energy savings to the consumer.

A third energy company ad made claims about creating jobs, but said nothing about the environment.

More than half of the subjects in the experiment fell for it: 57 percent said the companies featured in the first two ads — one with the green-office claim and the other with the carbon footprint calculator — had stronger “green credentials,” compared to the third energy company that made job creation claims. (Remember they were all fictitious companies, made up for the sake of this experiment.)

“We assume everyone is rational, that an educated consumer interrogates the market,” said Ravi Dutta-Powell, who worked on the study. “That’s not happening.”

We can learn to discern, but it’s hard.

Dutta-Powell’s experiment subjects were also randomly selected to receive “interventions” meant to inoculate them against misinformation.

One group was given information about greenwashing in general. Another group was invited to put together a misleading marketing campaign for a fictitious energy company — in effect, to play the role of greenwashers.

A third, the control group, got nothing in advance. They were just shown the fake ads.

The two groups that were offered the inoculation were slightly more “discerning,” as Dutta-Powell put it. But the difference was fairly small. And it’s unclear how long the effects of the inoculation might last.

Governments are beginning to step in to protect consumers.

In France, companies that promote “carbon neutral” claims must provide verifiable information to back it up, starting in January 2023.

Norway’s consumer protection agency recently warned the fast fashion giant H&M that the tool it was using, known as the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, “is not sufficient as a basis for the environmental claims they have used in their marketing.” (My colleague, Hiroko Tabuchi, wrote about the Higg Index this summer.)

And a British government agency recently opened investigations into three fashion brands to scrutinize their green claims.

The biggest potential crackdown on greenwashing has begun in Washington.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is looking at investment funds that claim high marks on environmental, social and governance metrics, also known as E.S.G. “Those offering investments must fully and fairly disclose what they are selling, and act consistently with those disclosures,” read a statement from the commission this spring.

“In other words: say what you mean and mean what you say,” the regulator’s statement said.

We’ll take a closer look at the S.E.C. efforts to tighten greenwashing standards later in the year. Stay tuned.


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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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