Understandably, a lot of individuals and businesses wanted to join the conversation. Unfortunately, many of them didn’t feel particularly motivated to bring anything constructive to it. As a result, we all bore witness to some frustrating, baffling and honestly at times pretty entertaining attempts at greenwashing.
Greenwashing is obviously terrible: companies wearing activism like a costume they can slip on and off is a huge bummer. But for environmentalists, it can also be a prod to stay on our toes. It reminds us that certain organisations, brands and individuals will do just about anything to delay climate action. But we’re not so easily fooled. Here are some of the weird, frustrating, misguided and ultimately failed attempts to dupe us in 2021.
— Teresa Anderson (@1TeresaAnderson) April 8, 2021
We all saw this one, right? South Korean beauty company innisfree released a face serum with a label that read “Hello, I’m Paper Bottle”. Cool…until you realise the paper packaging is wrapped around a plastic bottle. Despite the fact it uses 51.8 per cent less plastic than the previous packaging, and innisfree’s insistence the label was intended to speak to the outer wrapping, it’s very misleading.
In 99 per cent of situations, we’re all about a reusable object or product (especially when it’s replacing a single-use item that would otherwise end up in landfill). But every now and then, a slick, pastel-coloured Instagram-branded item comes along that makes us say, “guys, just chill for a second”. That was definitely the case when we came across the LastTissue from LastObject. The LastTissue advertises itself as a “reusable tissue” that you can wash between uses. It even comes in a cute double-sided container (in the shape of a tissue box) that you can carry your clean and dirty tissues in. This all sounds great until you remember that hankies have existed for about as long as noses have. Sure, they don’t come in a slick silicone box, but just steal a few from your grandpa and save yourself $35 not buying a product that arguably needn’t exist.
We don’t have enough time to break down all of H&M’s environmental sins, but this brand always seems to end up on one of these lists. Probably because it is one of the world’s largest fast fashion retailers, producing a stomach-churning three billion articles of clothing per year. Those items are made cheaply in developing nations and then sold at a low price to consumers who feel justified to wear them a handful of times before tossing them in the trash. That cycle is worsened by the bulk of those tossed pieces ending up in landfill and driving the growing disaster of textile pollution.
With a rap sheet like that, you’d think the brand would keep its head down when the topic of responsible production comes up. But alas, it’s chosen to make sustainable fashion a cornerstone of its corporate identity – despite repeatedly being called out as one of the worst greenwashers in the fashion industry.
You’ve probably already heard H&M’s Conscious collection being ripped apart by the media. Well, earlier in the year, The Big Issue reported that the line – pitched as clothing made from more sustainable materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester – has been found to contain a higher share of damaging synthetic materials than its main line (72 per cent compared to 61 per cent).
Things got even worse when, later in the year, the brand not only attempted to dupe the language of climate activism but also had a crack at the whole movement itself. In mid-2021, its UK stores and social media underwent a visual merchandising refresh consisting of pink and red posters with phrases like “climate crusader” and “eco warrior”. Not only was this misleading, it was offensive to the countless individuals who spend their lives fighting for these causes. H&M reduced their efforts to an aesthetic that could be easily thrown together and packed away when the marketing calendar refreshes.
This story does have a happy ending though. Real climate activists caught on to what they were doing and took it as an invitation to show them what a legitimate protest looks like. They set up camp in front of their windows, attracting piles of press attention in the process.
In June this year, environmental organisation Earth Island Institute filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola for falsely advertising that it is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Basically, Coca-Cola was getting carried away with advertising campaigns and brand messaging around environmental efforts and “scaling sustainable solutions”, including one marketing campaign with the headline “World Without Waste”. It’s an ironic statement coming from an organisation that was named the top plastic polluter in the world three years in a row.
The thing to remember here is that Coca-Cola chooses to manufacture the majority of its products using plastic, knowingly adding to an issue that pollutes and causes irreversible damage to marine life, oceans and coastal communities. It is exploring some more-sustainable alternatives (like biodegradable bottles made from plants), but, until those products are actually on the shelves, Coca-Cola shouldn’t be marketing itself as a sustainable corporation.
Usually greenwashing refers to a single event or action. But in this case it’s honestly simpler to just do a big “all this” arm sweep to the fossil fuel industry’s ongoing dissociation from reality when it comes to advertising.
For anyone who’s been out of the loop for the past few decades: fossil fuel companies are among the world’s largest contributors to climate change.
But you wouldn’t know that looking at their public-facing advertising campaigns. Many of which are generously adorned with images of wind farms, unspoilt landscapes and smiling kids running through cornfields.
Life does not imitate art. Earlier this year, environmental lawyers ClientEarth published files that showed some of the biggest fossil fuel companies (like ExxonMobil, Aramco, Chevron, Shell and Equinor) have used advertising to greenwash their ongoing contribution to the climate crisis.
The claims include things like Chevron saying it was “part of the solution” to climate change without having a net zero commitment or strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement, and Shell broadcasting low-carbon investments despite only assigning between US$2bn and US$3bn of funds to these parts of its business (compared to US$17bn on fossil fuel operations).
We’ll always be weary of their “sustainability” ethos, but we would probably react with less of an eye roll if fossil fuel companies weren’t pedalling this spin while still profiting from environmentally destructive operations and exploring for new fossil fuel projects.
It’s not often the whole world wide web finds a cause it can unite over and get behind as one. But we were gifted another rare moment of solidarity this year when CBS announced its new series The Activist. Now, this might not “technically” count as greenwashing, but it is a good example of a major company jumping on a social and political bandwagon with little thought of what it was doing (or how it could be interpreted by those in the know).
For anyone whose phone battery was dead the day this broke, The Activist was to be an Apprentice-type show (first red flag) that saw activists from a variety of causes compete to raise money for the issues that mattered to them. That in itself is pretty gross, but the way these (again, real and experienced) activists were to be judged was particularly icky. There would be little talk of policy, strategy or impact; rather they would be basically scored on how well they performed on social media, and how much engagement (AKA likes) their work for a cause received. Yeah, less bell hooks, more a cursive Instagram slide telling you to use a metal straw.
Adding to the randomness of the whole process, the judges were going to be musician Usher, actress Priyanka Chopra and dancer Julianne Hough. While we’re sure they’re all lovely, they aren’t exactly cultural leaders when it comes to social change. On the upside, no one was duped by this bizarre concoction of reality TV and celebrity. Countless individuals pushed back on the show’s grim structure and the wider idea that activism should be seen as a performance at all. Rather it was pointed out that the giant production budget could be put towards actually supporting these causes or the show could be retooled to celebrate and highlight the often invisible and unpaid efforts of community organisers. In the end, the backlash caused the producers to majorly reformat the show, changing it into a documentary about people actually doing this work (not just posting about it).