Greenwash button on keyboard

Don’t fall for the greenwash – three ways companies continue to mislead customers

Chris Harrop of Marshalls plc
Monday 13th September, 2021
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report on climate change has been deemed “a code red for humanity” by UN Secretary General António Guterres. The report declares that the damage being done by humanity is unprecedented and, in some cases, irreversible.

To those of us who’ve been studying climate change for some time, the report is an affirmation of all of our concerns. For us all, it marks the time to activate more lifestyle changes and to become better educated about the impacts of climate change on our everyday lives. And for businesses it should be a trigger to review and accelerate plans, realise that we are now at the adaption phase and can no longer prevent climate change. 

I’d never claim that we are perfect at Marshalls, no business should claim that. But we are driven and committed to the end goal. We’re working diligently towards our science-based targets and we’ve reduced our carbon footprint by 50% since 2008.

Back then, we published a booklet called ‘Halt the Greenwash’. In it we said: ”Being green is not all about opting for the simple life... Marshalls does not have an ‘Eco-range’. The company has taken action on all of its products and will continue to do so.”

Thirteen years on, corporates have become much more aware of what they need to do to combat climate change and be more sustainable. Consumers have become much more conscious of their impact on the planet. But still, greenwash lingers.

The thing is, greenwash has changed. It used to be about making false or misleading claims about a company’s environmental credentials. This still goes on, but there are now other types of greenwash that are less obvious but still, ultimately, greenwash. As individuals we cannot control what corporates say or do, but we can commit to educating ourselves to better understand the meaning behind their messages. And by doing this we can spot greenwash, see through it and make better choices on where we spend our money and place our loyalty. 

Here are three examples of greenwash that still occurs today amongst businesses:

1. Products called eco/green/low carbon…

A company has introduced a new product to the market and it has eco or green in its name. But is it really eco or green? If it claims to be low carbon, where is the evidence of its carbon footprint?

If a company has one product that’s environmentally friendly, what about their other products: has there been a sustainability evolution – or did they launch one product three years ago and nothing since? Taking the time to research the background to products that make grand low carbon claims is time well spent, it will result in better choices for you and for the environment. If information you want isn’t readily available, ask the question! Any reputable company will be happy to share details with you and put your mind at ease.

2. Well presented data, but with very little substance

I’ve seen many great-looking charts and graphs from different companies. But look closely and you’ll sometimes find no numbers, or no information on what the chart actually measures, or even a chart that contradicts another chart. Of course mistakes can happen, but it’s good practice not to take this information at face value and question things that don’t look quite right. Base your decisions on more than just activity that ticks a box or looks good on the surface.

3. A machine, a donation…

A machine that will make a manufacturing process more efficient and less carbon intensive is great. A gesture to donate computers to a community is wonderful and it will mean a lot to the community that needs it. But look closely at the big picture – is this company embracing sustainability or are these stories just a clever distraction? 

Marshalls has been on its sustainability journey for over 20 years, and I know it’s not easy. We’re in it for the long haul and working hard to be a responsible business. We’ve set clear targets and we’re working towards them. We partner with reputable organisations on issues that matter. We measure our progress, get our data verified externally and publish the results. It’s the only way. 

I hope that this article helps you to spot greenwash and identify the right businesses to partner and spend with. You can find out more about Marshalls approach to sustainability on our website, or watch our short video below.

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