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When it comes to big companies and organisations, we only see the tip of the iceberg. Marketing techniques and commercials are frequently not sincere, causing several scandals and accusations of numerous industries. Everything is not what it seems.
Greenwashing in Products and Ethical Labour
Greenwashing is a term used to describe the act of providing the public and investors misleading or false information regarding the ecological footprint of a company’s products and operations. For the past few years, being sustainable and environmentally friendly has become increasingly popular, and so it was a matter of time before industries tried to incorporate that in their operations.
Many companies have embraced the eco-friendly concept, striving to become ‘greener’ in the coming years in reducing their CO2 emissions, generating recyclable products etc. The problem is that in many cases these efforts are advertised to be a lot greener than they actually are. For instance, in 2018, Starbucks launched a straw-less lid for their coffee cups in an attempt to reduce single-use straws and plastic consumption overall; the plastic contained in the new lids was more than that in the old lids and straws combined. Another example of this is Zara, who started their Join Life line of clothing made from recyclable and ethically collected materials, to become more sustainable. As of 2020, the line made up 30% of all products, but that percentage fell to only 6% by 2021 with Zara still advertising this as a green initiative.
The greenwashing phenomenon also expands in matters of fair labour for the workers. Most companies advertise themselves as ethical, with little to no accurate description of what that means. That is evident in the vague statements concerning the treatment and wage of the workers, especially in clothing and sportswear brands. More specifically, H&M has stated that they are “working to improve wage management systems to make sure everybody’s individual skills are taken into account when setting wages” without providing further information. As for Adidas, they have made a lot of sustainable initiatives and are a member of the Fair Labor Association, but have no evidence of paying their workers a living wage. Instead, due to the growth of living wages in China, they have been moving their production sites to countries with lower wage standards and fewer laws against workers’ exploitation.
Unfortunately, this pattern of misleading or false advertising is not limited to environmental matters but also socio-political: companies claim to be LGBTQIA+ allies in order to promote corporate or political agendas. That is called Pinkwashing and is mostly noticed during Pride month when companies launch numerous campaigns in support of the community. Clothing companies like H&M and Levi’s have launched such campaigns, promoting equality and LGBTQIA+ rights. However, they have received a lot of backlash due to the fact that they operate in countries like Bangladesh, where homosexuality is considered illegal by the government. A similar situation emerged when automotive groups like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, added rainbow colours to their logos during Pride month showing their solidarity to the LGBTQIA+ community. However, their logo’s performative solidarity didn’t apply to countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia or the Middle East, where people are still marginalised for their sexual identities.
Ways to Combat the Issue
This does not conclude that initiatives to become more sustainable, inclusive, ethical etc. are bad. On the contrary, they are essential steps to be made towards an honest business world. The problem lies in the lack of transparency of the industries and the lack of research from the public. It is necessary for companies not to glorify their campaigns for profit, but to advertise their initiatives honestly and clearly. Patagonia is a brand that has put this to practice. They not only incorporate sustainability as a core practice in their products’ lines, but also actively participate in the Fair Labor Association and make sure their workers are paid a living wage. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has also launched the ‘1% For The Planet’ initiative, where 1% of the company’s sales are donated to the preservation and restoration of the environment. They call themselves ‘responsible’ and have statistics and details concerning all their procedures from materials and electricity usage, to where they do business and their social awareness programs. They are proof that it is possible to produce high-quality products without harming the environment or the employees involved, while being 100% transparent about it.
Sometimes industries have not done the necessary research themselves, regarding the impact an initiative is going to have on the environment or society as a whole. In this case they need to be more thorough before their announcement and marketing ploys that count on the consumers’ conscience to live sustainably. As for the consumers, they should be more informed and conscious about the companies they choose to support and their influence on the world. For example, Coca-Cola may claim they will make their packaging more sustainable and recycle their bottles, but people should not forget that they have been the world’s no.1 plastic polluter for the past 5 years in a row.
Further action should be taken by governments and international organisations, in implementing regulations on the issues of Greenwashing, Pinkwashing, and especially when it comes to fair labour and human rights in the workplace. The Fair Labor Association is an organisation that provides education and evaluation programs for companies, to improve working conditions for their employees. Its numerous members include: universities, companies and civil society organisations.
Another exciting development is the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) on Plastic Pollution that strives to develop an international legally binding instrument for plastic pollution. This involves the marine environment, with delegates hopefully numbered from 147 countries by the end of 2024. The goal is for this instrument to address the full-life cycle, sustainable production and consumption of plastics.
On the whole, today’s marketing world is a combination of the digital age where people are constantly bombarded with information and the capitalist economic model that encourages each industry’s goal to profit. This combination makes false or misleading advertisements appealing and easy considering that people do not have the time nor the desire to research every company’s code of ethics. As a result, it is very important to apply critical thinking and hold companies accountable for their actions, but also applaud any steps towards an inclusive and environmentally conscious world.
Written by Despina Zacharopoulou
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