Greenwashing, the act of making claims that overstate a company’s actions to combat climate degradation, is deceitful, widespread, and often difficult to detect. While it is routinely criticised, it still remains an effective tool for companies to reap the benefits of positive public relations, while keeping their environmentally destructive business models unchanged. When faced with this force of power, it is important that we as consumers hold companies accountable for their actions. To this end, I have detailed three industries infamous for this technique, some avenues to spot their lies, and alternatives that are genuinely environmentally friendly.
Who could’ve guessed the industry which continually promotes excessive consumption, exploits inhumane working conditions, and advocates for archaic and oppressive beauty standards, would be dishonest about their environmental impact? Being responsible for a tenth of all climate emissions, the largest contributor to microplastics in oceans, and creating one-fifth of industrial wastewater worldwide, the fashion industry has a lot to hide. However, it has been fast to stay on the ‘trend’ of appearing sustainable.
Endless lines of new ‘responsible’ and ‘green’ catalogues have made the industry afloat with new products that appear to be a step forwards but are nothing else than savvy marketing. A 2021 report by the accredited British non-profit Changing Markets Foundation found 59% of green claims made by apparel brands were unsubstantiated or misleading, with some notable key players performing even worse . All but four percent of H&M garments labelled as sustainable were found to be in breach of British governmental guidelines for sustainability . Online retailer ASOS’s ‘responsible edit’ range only used 9% recycled materials for its synthetic products . However, there is a range of legitimate organisations that provide third-party accreditation to genuinely environmentally sustainable fashion labels. Both B-Corp and the Global Organic Textile Standard have websites listing these labels and are a must-see before your next wardrobe update. One final heads up as well, up to 80% of donated clothes never reach op-shops, so while donating clothes still remains the best means to recycle, op-shopping is by no means a sustainable hobby . However, clothes swaps remain a great alternative, as does selling clothes yourself.
Food is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse emissions, natural habitat destruction, and broader environmental degradation. As this was the subject of my last piece, I will avoid detailing what you loyal readers already have heard. However, companies in the food industry have also remained industrious in avoiding real action towards decreasing their environmental impact.
Straightforward claims such as ‘100% recycled plastics’ can be factually incorrect through dodgy wording . Many major non-profits which offer certifications do very little to promote sustainability, such as the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), the certifier for ‘sustainable’ palm oil used by companies such as Nestle. It has been called a ‘greenwashing’ tool by conservation organisations for its inability to prevent widespread deforestation and land degradation over the last 20 years and thus must be viewed as such by consumers. Other third parties have failed to deliver promises to ease waste, such as Terracycle. Hailed as an innovative means to provide recycling services to some of the world’s largest plastic polluters, it proved mostly ineffective, and instead became a tool to distract from the increasing production of mostly non-recycled plastics.
When shopping from overseas producers, Fairtrade International serves to be the best widely adopted certification for environmentally sustainable food products, which can be found using their website, or on packages of certified products. Domestically, determining what brands are sustainable is significantly harder, however, shopping locally if possible is generally a great way to ensure minimal use of single-use plastics and land degradation.
Again, no surprises here. The mining industry does happen to provide the fossil fuels that are obsessively consumed, and not-so-occasionally spilled into water systems, and soil. They also extract polluting metals which form poisonous streams, during floods and heavy rains . But the mining industry has not failed to spare some of its current windfall profits, to spread some endearing misinformation.
Many companies refuse to publish data on their own environmental impacts, with only 3 of 56 major global miners reporting dam waste . Furthermore, manipulation of data is common, something mining giant Glencore received international legal backlash over last year. Even barefaced lying isn’t out of the question, with Shell disclosing incorrect information about its renewable investments . These efforts haven’t flown under the radar, with our own ANU publishing multiple articles, which are available to all students, documenting the environmental impact of mining in Australia, and the Asia-Pacific. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) also publishes regular articles bringing awareness to the underreported impacts of new mining projects within Australia. The ACF also hosts campaigns which raise awareness and combat environmentally damaging mining projects, as well as providing other forms of information including climate rankings of super funds.
While greenwashing is widespread, it can be called out. By staying critical of companies’ claims about sustainability, and knowing the avenues to interrogate these statements, the power of greenwashing can become another failed attempt to prevent our inevitable path to coexisting with our environment.
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