Greenwashing can be as subtle as a misleading packaging choice all the way to fossil fuel companies touting themselves as being eco-champions. Either way, greenwashing is a harmful and deceitful way of advertising that a company is more sustainable than it actually is. Companies that make false claims should be held accountable. Here are 10 companies that have been caught greenwashing in various ways.
A classic example of greenwashing is when Volkswagen admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting various vehicles with a “defect” device, with software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions test and altering the performance to reduce the emissions level.
This was going on while to the public the company was touting the low-emissions and eco-friendly features of its vehicles in marketing campaigns. In actuality, these engines were emitting up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.
Fossil fuel giant BP changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and publicly added solar panels on their gas stations. In December 2019, an environmental group called ClientEarth lodged a complaint against BP for misleading the public with its advertisements that focused on BP’s low-carbon energy products, when more than 96% of its annual spend is on oil and gas.
Oil giant ExxonMobil has a long history of damaging the environment. In 1989, an Exxon oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, in what was the worst oil spill in US history until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The Exxon oil spill covered 1,300 miles of coastline and killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales. More than 30 years later, pockets of crude oil remain in some locations.
Recently, ExxonMobil came under fire for advertising that suggested that its experimental algae biofuels could one day reduce transport emissions, while it has no company-wide net zero target and its 2025 emission reduction targets do not include the vast majority of emissions resulting from its products.
In 2018, Nestlé released a statement saying that it had “ambitions” for its packaging to be 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. However, environmental groups and other critics pointed out that the company hadn’t released clear targets, a timeline to accompany its ambitions or additional efforts to help facilitate recycling by consumers. Greenpeace reacted to this by releasing its own statement, in which it said, “Nestlé’s statement on plastic packaging includes more of the same greenwashing baby steps to tackle a crisis it helped to create. It will not actually move the needle toward the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way, and sets an incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world.” In Break Free From Plastic’s 2020 annual report, Nestlé, along with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, were named the world’s top plastic polluters for the third year in a row.
In the annual report mentioned above by Break Free From Plastic, Coca-Cola was ranked as the world’s number 1 plastic polluter, it’s second consecutive year at the top. In 2020, the company came under fire when it announced that it would not abandon plastic bottles, saying that they were popular with customers.
Despite this, the company is adamant that it is making progress in tackling packaging waste. At the time, a spokesperson said, “Globally, we have a commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so that none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans, and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles. Bottles with 100% recycled plastic are now available in 18 markets around the world, and this is continually growing.”
Then, in June 2021, environmental organisation Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against the beverage giant for falsely advertising that it is sustainable and eco-friendly despite being the largest plastic polluter in the world.
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In 2018, Starbucks released a “straw-less lid,” as part of its sustainability drive, however this lid contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combination. The company didn’t dispute this, but claimed that it is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that “can be captured in recycling infrastructure.” Critics were quick to point out that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, so the company shouldn’t assume all the lids would be recycled. Further, the US exports about one-third of its recycling to developing countries, so it is simply passing its responsibility to poorer countries.
IKEA was considered a beacon of a major corporation being sustainable before June 2020 when the furniture retailer was linked with illegal logging in Ukraine. In a report by NGO Earthsight, the wood certification scheme IKEA uses, Forest Stewardship Council, was described as an organisation that greenwashes the timber industry. It was accused of failing to catch IKEA’s sourcing of conflict wood, and act on it.
Further, when IKEA built its “most sustainable store” yet in London in 2019, it did so on top of another sustainable store that was demolished after just 17 years of use.
8. Plastic Bottle Water Companies
A more subtle form of greenwashing can be seen in plastic water bottle companies like Poland Spring, Evian and Deer Park, that all have nature on their labels. This is laughably ironic considering that plastic water bottles are designed to be single-use and are contributing to the massive plastic waste crisis around the world.
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9. Major Banks
The past several years have seen major financial institutions talking a big game about combating climate change yet these are more examples of companies exercising greenwashing strategies. JP Morgan, Citibank and Bank of America have issued new “green investment” opportunities. However, a report released last year by the Rainforest Action Network showed that big banks – the ones mentioned above, but also including Wells Fargo, Barclays, Bank of China, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank – were still lending enormous sums to the industries that contribute the most to global warming, like fossil fuels and deforestations, while boasting that they’re the leaders of the green transition.
10. Fast Fashion Brands
H&M, Zara and Uniqlo are among the companies that were caught greenwashing over the years. These fashion brands contribute to the massive amounts of textile waste caused by the clothing industry. According to the fashion nonprofit ReMake, 80% of discarded textiles globally are incinerated or landfill-bound, with just 20% being reused or recycled.
Fast fashion brands also have a habit of advertising its green initiatives widely, despite it being a tiny part of its operations. For example, in 2019, H&M launched its own line of “green” clothing titled “Conscious.” The company claims to use “organic” cotton and recycled polyester. However, the line is nothing but a marketing tactic used to make themselves appear more environmentally friendly. When looking at H&M’s “Conscious” line, its mission states: “Shop our selection of sustainable fashion pieces that make you both look and feel good.” However, there is no single legal definition for marketing-friendly words such as “sustainable,” “green,” or “environmentally-friendly.” H&M was then criticised by the Norwegian Customer Authority for “misleading” marketing of their Conscious Collection because “the information given regarding sustainability was not sufficient, especially given that the Conscious Collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits.”
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What Can I Do?
1. On A Personal Level
Ways to approach climate action within our personal lives (hint – it evolves personal action but is not focused on small behavioural changes, which whilst worthwhile will not get us there):
- Joining a community can be one of the best ways to increase your impact.
- First, it can enable you to make hundreds of connections in one go.
- Second, a group of people working together can have more impact than individuals. If you are not already, take action by becoming an EO Member to support our mission to encourage a billion climate activists.
- If you’re a younger read ask your parents to take action by bringing your whole family on board as a Family Member.
- Reflect on the concept of Effective Altruism, a project that aims to find the best ways to help others, and put them into practice.
2. On A Professional Level
Ways to approach climate action within the workplace:
- Maintain your career path but consider donating a portion of your income to organisations that are focused on achieving meaningful & impactful goals and call out your boss if the company or organisation you work for does not have clear policies that will result in reduced harm to the environment and a pathway to Net Zero.
- Ask your boss to support EO by bringing the whole team onboard with EO company membership – and take action together.
- Reconsider your career path, with excellent advice here.
3. On A Political Level
Ways to approach climate action as a voter or political actor (even if you can’t vote):
- Protest – make your feelings known – become a vocal and passionate advocate with friends and family (without being over pushy) of the need for climate action. We need a billion activists to turn this ship around.
- Join organisations that are organising climate actions and protests locally, whether in your city, district, or even at school.
- Vote (if you can) for politicians who will champion effective climate action by governments.
- Vote for parties or organisations that espouse self-reform and the adoption of ‘Ministers of the Future’ into government.
Featured image by: Flickr