Here is the second part of my report on global warming. Since part one was released, I’ve continued my journey by devoting at least two hours a day to studying and following climate news.
In the last two months, the latter was very rich! Within the sixth report from the IPCC, there was a distressing interview with a climate activist who was pushed around by three climate-skeptical journalists in England (we also had similar examples in France: here and here). There was also news of the record floods in Australia, South Africa and Canada. There’s been exceptional heat in Antarctica, India, Chile, Pakistan, Morocco, Brazil, the Middle East and now in Europe. The Shein Group fundraising is at a record-high. Lastly, there have been significant elections and changes of government in France and Australia.
When I started to learn about climate change 1.5 years ago, I varied my sources of information by consulting all types of media and press outlets (small, huge, independent, oriented, French-speaking, English-speaking, etc.) Why? Because it was the best way for me to avoid locking myself into a single current of thought and because I noticed environmental subjects were treated very unequally according to the media outlet.
However, as I progressed I slowly questioned this method and began to be more selective about where to source information.
In fact, the more I progressed the more it seemed to me the mainstream media, which is the most consulted and the most influential, were completely off the mark about the climate. Whereas independent media, often only present on the internet and therefore less consulted and influential, are more in-depth and accurate.
Today, this impression has completely crystallized and I find that mainstream media journalists have a limited approach to the subject when they choose to report on it. Generally, they’re poorly trained, insensitive to the challenges of global warming, the debate is often very poor (limited to young people talking about energy and renewable energies), and the speakers they receive are generally unaware of the problem or simply; they’re climate skeptics. I think these journalists are not qualified to inform the public and they should not write about this subject. Their articles often cause outcry on social media, it does nothing to improve the image of their newspaper and they contribute more to misinformation.
As I write these lines, I cannot help but think of this article published in the “environment” section of Le Parisien two days after the release of the sixth IPCC report. The journalist gives his readers mind-boggling advice “to take the plane and discover distant lands without feeling too guilty”. We are right in what we’ve just witnessed: lack of knowledge, training, and reflection, climate skepticism and distressing remarks of nullity when we talk about ecology. Another hot example for the road?
Conversely, I think journalists, columnists, and independent media presenters are much better trained and competent on the topic of ecology. They work on the real questions, provide detailed analyses, and offer clear decryptions. They refocus the debate, call out the subjects that matter (elimination of fossil fuels, decarbonization of the economy, preservation of biodiversity, sobriety, social justice, etc.) and accurately inform their subscribers. They are involved, do not hesitate to cross-check, and they gladly quote the words “climate change” when necessary.
The recent French presidential and legislative elections have made me realize how immense the influence of the media is in the current climate crisis and how great their responsibility is in prioritizing this subject.
In this article, we talk about a subject that is really close to my heart, a subject I have extensively documented in recent months. It’s also about processing and disclosing information, but not by journalists this time. We are talking about greenwashing because it’s everywhere (everywhere!), it’s very dangerous, and I want to pass on reading material that will save you from making mistakes.
Greenwashing is a vast subject, impossible to cover in one go, so I wrote a series of three articles that I will distribute over time. Today, we define the practice. This article talks about the manifestations of greenwashing, its effects, and its dangers. I’ve included visual aids to illustrate all this and I will comment on them a little later. In the next article, I will give concrete examples of greenwashing and advice on how to understand them. In the last article, we will see the effective means we have to fight against greenwashing today.
Quick disclaimer: in this article, it’s possible that I am wrong or not precise enough. I am not an expert but an amateur who writes to learn. It’s also possible that I popularize too much at times or that I issue hypotheses or opinions (nice example above 😉), but I will make sure these are clear. If I make a mistake or lack evidence, I'll be glad if you correct me. And if you liked this article, do not hesitate to like, comment and share! 😊
Greenwashing... Do you know what it is? Can you identify it? Does it annoy you when you realize that you are taken for a moron? I understand very well. I remember having discovered the practice a few years ago, but it was only after setting up a B2C brand and discovering behind the scenes, that I really understood what it was.
I retained 3 definitions while doing my research.
In the dictionary sense, greenwashing is a marketing or public relations process used by a company or state to give itself a misleading image of ecological responsibility. OK…
ADEME defines greenwashing as "any advertising message that may mislead the public about the real ecological quality of a product or service or about the reality of an organization's sustainable development approach." Better...
I define greenwashing as misinforming or lying and therefore manipulating or deceiving, intending to divert people's attention and achieve (for a society or a state) a short term objective: to seduce, sell, protect one's reputation, or attract talent.
A few quick examples before getting into the hard stuff?
In our current societies, an example of greenwashing is a bank or an oil company that calls itself “green” while discreetly financing fossil projects to the tune of billions. Greenwashing is an airline company that proclaims itself carbon-neutral, a car company that claims its cars are non-polluting, and a state making climate commitments based on technologies that don’t yet exist. Other examples come from marketing teams, policies, or lobbies that talk about green, ethical and responsible growth without providing a plan or figures - or they’re influencers who claim to be green while promoting practices that are harmful to the environment.
Do these examples speak to you?
Today, greenwashing is everywhere, interfering with all layers of our societies and spheres of our economies. It’s constantly evolving and renewing itself. It runs wild on the internet, reigns supreme on social media channels, and it’s omnipresent in our cities, in our countryside, and on the packaging of the products we consume. It can sometimes be so coarse that it’s funny: here and here (that said, the bigger it is, the more it passes), but it can also be very intelligently thought out and difficult to identify.
Concretely speaking, greenwashing manifests itself every day in the same way. It takes the form of vague and imprecise words, inaccurate terminologies, misleading or disproportionate expressions, excessive promises, false labels, confusing visuals or too easy associations of ideas.
Greenwashing often hides behind these "buzzwords", which we see everywhere and are used for political or commercial interest. I'm talking about these buzzwords: eco-friendly, eco-designed, 100% natural, non toxic, cruelty free, sustainable, renewable, regenerative, all natural, climate positive, earth friendly, climate active, zero waste, net zero, zero impact, carbon neutral, lifetime carbon neutral, low carbon footprint, all green…
Greenwashing often hides behind these symbols: arrows, triangles, circles, behind all these colors: green, green, green, green, green and behind all this imagery that creates misleading associations with nature: a pretty natural setting, a beautiful river, a majestic forest with tall trees and small birds chirping on the branches…
Greenwashing is often hidden behind these expressions that have become too common: sustainable consumption, sustainable development, good for the planet, concerned about the environment, preserving the climate, non-polluting, great friend of plants...
Greenwashing often hides behind these emerging concepts: green finance, green capitalism, sustainable agriculture, positive and pragmatic ecology, biofuel, sustainable cities, green technology, clean aircraft, green growth, or green blockchain…
Greenwashing often hides behind minor actions that attract attention while diverting attention from the real problem: redesigning a product’s packaging to hide the truth about the product or supporting environmental causes to mask its impact.
Greenwashing often hides behind terms/expressions used to exclude social transformation projects from the debate and maintain an established order: return to the candle, green ayatollah, punitive ecology…
Greenwashing is often hidden behind empty punchlines “no difference for you, big difference for the planet” that sound as false as a political slogan and behind hypocritical hashtags that we use to restore our coat of arms: #standforgreen #savetheplanet…
Above all, greenwashing is characterized in most cases by a total absence of valid evidence. Indeed, in most cases, companies and states prefer not to bother with potentially dangerous justifications and rely on the fact that people will not fact-check what is said to them for lack of time, knowledge, or interest.
Greenwashing is the art of hiding a company's desire to not change anything. It’s the art of concealing, playing on appearances, and diverting attention from the issues that matter. To sell more. To seduce more. Greenwashing is the art of anesthetizing minds and deadening consciences.
Some companies and states end up greenwashing for lack of knowledge or by mistake (it happens, evil isn’t everywhere ❤), while the very, very large majority of them do it intentionally.
Frankly, who has never been seduced by the strong commitments of a brand without going to check if what they’re reading is true? Who has never been fooled by a great design with “eco-friendly” packaging? Who has never been convinced by one of the 450 green labels listed worldwide? Who has never let themselves be lulled by a serious plan to save the planet when the plan was actually led by a major polluter?
Whether we are sharp or not on the subject, we have all been had at least once by marketing not too badly done or a well-placed initiative.
Today almost all companies and states are speaking out and declaring themselves greener than before. They all have their commitment (often the one that suits them best). They’re all trying to present themselves as greener than their neighbor to win the favor of an ever-widening audience.
Only now more and more people are aware of these marketing strategies and are reaching a saturation point. Indeed, as soon as we take a step back, we quickly realize that the majority of these announcements/actions are nothing but a joke.
To talk about my own experience, it was by creating Untraced and discovering the reality of market practices that I realized how much I was being manipulated every day. I was shocked! I was really disappointed when I realized some of the companies I turn to were talking nonsense. I felt a deep dismay when I saw the environment, apparently at the heart of all concerns, was not actually being cared for.
From that moment, I started to ask questions and was able to see more clearly. Having become anxiety-provoking, my shopping experience gradually became fun again because I began checking each time if the information given to me was true or not.
Knowing more about greenwashing also pushed me to change the mission for Untraced and decide to do things as best I could, without lying or overplaying (even if that meant going against market practices and developing much slower).
Today, I can see things much better. I'm not saying that I'm no longer afraid of regretting my choice when I buy a product, and of realizing that I was taken in by a logo that was too green or marketing that was better executed than another, but I'm moving forward and I feel like I'm more in control of what I choose. If I have any doubt? I simply don't buy it. I notice that I favor more and more (perhaps wrongly) brands that say nothing, don’t proclaim anything and do its thing on the side, without overdoing it.
The most unfortunate thing is that by talking nonsense and promoting the slightest interesting initiative on their accounts to give themselves a good appearance, companies and states distort innovations, those that can really make change happen.
This is what I believe is happening today with the circular economy and the B Corp certification. The first is a fascinating concept full of potential, while the second is a serious label that proves that a company is cool in many ways. Both are great projects that were taken seriously from the start, but here it is... Everyone started to take them on board, exploit them, communicate excessively about them, distort them and both projects ended up losing their essence and their raison d'être. The circular economy is now nothing more than a bland synonym of infinite recycling of products (which is totally absurd) and B Corp certification is flourishing everywhere, on lots of ads, and unfortunately under the logos of unscrupulous brands.
Greenwashing is dangerous. Really. If today I had to retain only four of the dangers it represents, I would choose the following:
- Greenwashing confuses people and gives them a clear conscience. Today, advertisements are no longer simple product promotions, they’re mini entertainment spots. The storytelling is good, the music is soft and the message subtle. The result: the consumer (including me, clearly!) lowers his guard, his doubts, lets himself be seduced, puts things into perspective and buys with the feeling of making an eco-friendly purchase - not knowing it was all a lie.
- Greenwashing contributes to the loss of consumer/citizen confidence in companies and states. More and more of us are becoming disillusioned and reaching a point of total saturation. As a result, the public no longer listens to the promises made to them and no longer believes in anything.
- Greenwashing is an obstacle to overcome for genuine ecological innovations. If all companies use the ecological argument, how to identify those that really act for the environment? How do you tell those who are really trying to make a difference from those who are just talking.
- Above all, greenwashing fosters public resentment against ecology, it helps to minimize the efforts to be undertaken to reduce our emissions and it blocks the ecological transition. Instead of thinking concretely about how to change the model to pollute less, companies and states prefer to invest heavily in misleading marketing and disinformation campaigns in order to maintain a profitable status quo. They prefer not to change anything hoping that their customers/citizens will see nothing but greatness and they will continue to buy/vote. They reassure, delude, caress in the direction of the hair and convince us it’s not necessary to act immediately. Tomorrow or the day after maybe, but not now. Companies and states lock us into an unsustainable socio-ecological trajectory and cause us to miss the branches that could be life-saving.
I repeat, greenwashing is dangerous. You have to be aware of it, know how to read it and be careful. It is not for nothing that the practice is illegal and punishable by law. However, the abuses are so numerous, and so time consuming to deal with that all too often the harm is done long before it’s caught, taken off the market and punished.
So, does all of this speak to you? Do you link ideas from this article to previously seen ads? Previous experiences? Cool! Next time we will see how greenwashing translates into practice. To support this article, I have indeed been looking for some examples of very meaningful ads and I have classified them by industry. I will put at the bottom of each example a short explanation to give you good keys to reading and I hope you will take as much pleasure in reviewing them as I had in finding them!
Accounts to follow to go further:
Perle de greenwashing, Pour un réveil écologique, Mathieu Jahnich, BonPote, Vert, le média qui annonce la couleur, La fresque du climat, The Shift Project, Les Shifters, Juliette Nouel, Climax, Blast le souffle de l'info, Reporterre, le quotidien de l'écologie, Mediapart, ADEME, Reclaim Finance - ONG, Carbone 4, Jean-Marc Jancovici, QuotaClimat, Loom, Thinkerview, L’Iglou, Alerte Greenwashing, Maxence cordier Ecolomoncul, En mode Climat, Julia Faure, Arthur Auboeuf, Salomé Saqué, Paloma Moritz
Sources used to write this article: