Have you ever noticed that your favourite shampoo is now mysteriously in a green bottle, with shaded trees and reminding you that plastic can be recycled?
Or maybe you feel like the paper towel you usually buy to wipe your dirty counter is helping you change the world because it has a leaf on it? Did that kombucha bottle come up from the roots of the earth, or is that just the new design?
If any of these scenarios resonate with you, you might be a victim of a marketing tool called greenwashing. This term was coined by an environmentalist named Jay Westerveld in the 1980s, “to describe companies which grossly overstate the environmental or ethical benefits of their products and services.”
That’s right, 1980. We have been manipulated by falsely sustainable products for almost 40 years and the trend is only growing. This marketing tool could not be more valuable in our modern economy, as everyday we collectively panic about the climate crisis.
Many of us are doing what we think is right by buying what we think are sustainable products. Capitalism has a funny way of turning a disastrous crisis into an economic opportunity, with big companies exploiting and manipulating the market for their personal gain.
One of the main issues with greenwashing is that defining sustainability is not as straightforward as it is marketed to be. We tend to respond well to simplified categories and digestible explanations, but sustainability is a very complex issue. It is often defined as maintaining ecological balance or being environmentally conscious, but these terms are vague, and companies are using this to their advantage.
Let’s take a look at a textbook greenwashing example: Fiji water bottles. Fiji as a company has done a very effective job at perpetuating a message that they will help you connect with nature. One of their slogans was “a gift from nature to us.” Not to mention, they got a cute little girl to say it, which creeped me out, but seemed to work for others. The creepy little girl also says, “bottled at the source, untouched by man.” I mean, it’s beyond me how they created mass amounts of bottled water without touching anything. Also, where is that girl’s mother? Anyway, the irony here is obvious. Fiji promotes connection to nature, while feeding into the destruction of it.
According Our Changing Planet, 47 per cent of Fijians do not have access to clean, safe water. This company is sending a message that they are saving forests and creating sustainable change, but it’s propaganda. The unnerving thing is, even though, New York Times Magazine came out with an article criticizing Fiji’s integrity in 2008, the company is still a massive capitalist giant. Although we can rationalize the clear intent of the company, they are professional manipulators. We have to push back against our instincts to get lost in a little girl’s cute voice and a pretty forest background.
My consumer conscience relaxes when I clean my toilet bowl with a green bottle. I fall for buzzwords like “all natural,” “eco-friendly,” and “sustainable” all the time. A lot of people do — that’s why companies continue to do it. This being said, we have more control than we think. There are good companies out there — but greenwashing is loud and invasive, and often drown them out.
Try your best to buy local products and try to avoid chains when possible. I know that sometimes this can be more expensive, but often choosing the more environmental choice just takes a bit more time and research. When you are buying products keep in mind where they are coming from, how much packaging they use and what ingredients they consist of, although this is just the tip of the melting iceberg.
Like Our Changing Planet states, “One of the greenest things you can do is to buy fewer things. No matter how great the product is, it’s probably still kind of deceptive to market it as green.”
So remember, mass consumption of sustainable goods is a harmful paradox, and for goodness sake, get a reusable water bottle.
Photo by Britanny Clarke