Greenwashing or Greenbashing: Investigating Claims of Environmental Sustainability

How can we distinguish between authentic and insincere green initiatives and claims? Who is really taking climate change seriously and who isn't? What are the red flags, who are the actors, what are their interests and how can the public gain more awareness? This short article summarizes the main discussions points and resources shared during an online Exposing the Invisible event on "Greenwashing or Greenbashing: Investigating Claims of Environmental Sustainability", hosted in April 2023.

We are facing a trend of "green", "climate friendly" and "eco" initiatives wherever we look, from corporations, to NGOs to governments and individuals. But things aren't always as "green" as they seem on the surface. At a time when companies and individuals are increasingly advertising their environmental sustainability credentials – whether through the use of renewable energy, trash reduction, or other eco-friendly measures – some worry that these claims may be flimsy or even deceptive. On the other hand, climate change skeptics and others who underestimate the human impact on the environment frequently criticize and bash "green" or "eco-friendly” decisions or actions as ineffective, dangerous to the economy.

Recently, Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible project hosted an event to discuss both trends: Greenwashing vs Greenbashing. The discussion revolved around the ways companies use green claims to appear more environmentally friendly than they are, and, on the other side of the spectrum, the claims that green practices are ineffective or harmful. The participants were more familiar with greenwashing than greenbashing and debated the difficulty of determining the real impact of ‘green’ policies. 

The conversation highlighted how companies often make cosmetic changes to their products or manufacturing processes while not significantly reducing the impact on the environment. Greenwashing allows companies to claim to be "green" without making significant changes. This shields companies from criticism since it is difficult to determine how these green policies affect the environment. On the other hand, greenbashing can discourage companies and governments from making positive changes to their environmental impact.

Some of the questions raised by participants were how to detect false claims and the difference between greenbashing and a healthy skepticism about environmental sustainability claims.

One issue that arose during the discussion was the question of why carbon emissions are the accepted standard of measuring negative environmental impact. While reducing carbon emissions is important, it should not be the only measure of environmental impact. 

During the event, participants shared their own resources, topics and examples for identifying greenwashing and following the trends, such as:

  • Upcoming directive at EU level addressing communication of explicit environmental claims by corporations (Green Claims Directive): this directive aims to tackle greenwashing and to help consumers make informed choices about the products they purchase and their expected environmental impact. Climate-smart agriculture is corporate greenwashing, warn NGOs.

  • The need to investigate practices around carbon offsets, which represent efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or increase carbon storage (for instance through land restoration or the planting of trees) as a measure to compensate for emissions occuring elsewhere.. Investigations show significant flows and issues affecting large players in that market, as exposed by Follow the Money: (free sign-up needed in order to access the articles.)

  • Carbon offset projects in the Brazilian Amazon – most practices being implemented with authorization by land owners (who own the carbon credits generated) are misinformed. People do not know exactly what carbon is or how it is generated - a knowledge gap responsible for most of the greenwashing in this field.

  • Anti-windfarm committee: in 2013, many windfarms were built in Ireland, companies were offering landowners money to build windmills on their land. But who actually gains from this arrangement? Developers would benefit from government money, but windmill manufacturing (cement, steel, infrastructure etc.) is not really sustainable. 

  • An example of a greenbashing claim that power outages in Texas were caused by wind turbines and the support of the Green New Deal, a claim that was debunked

  • Drawing attention to the dangers of deep sea mining, an issue that is often overlooked in discussions of environmental impact. Deep sea mining involves extracting valuable minerals and metals from the ocean floor, which can cause significant damage to fragile ecosystems.

There was also a discussion about virtue signaling - similar to greenwashing in this particular context - from authority actors aimed at shaming the general public, while not enforcing enough policies to address the real perpetrators of environmental damage. 

To sum up, while greenwashing can lead to complacency among consumers, greenbashing can discourage companies and governments from making positive changes to their environmental impact. One important takeaway from the event was the need for increased awareness and investigations around issues of environmental impact. For instance, by looking at a company's entire supply chain and demanding transparency, we can find out more about the impact of green policies on the environment.

Relevant resources from Exposing the Invisible

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