Greenwashing – the deceptive tactics behind environmental claims
Greenwashing presents a significant obstacle to tackling climate change. By misleading the public to believe that a company or other entity is doing more to protect the environment than it is, greenwashing promotes false solutions to the climate crisis that distract from and delay concrete and credible action.
Greenwashing manifests itself in several ways – some more obvious than others. Tactics include:
- Claiming to be on track to reduce a company’s polluting emissions to net zero when no credible plan is actually in place.
- Being purposely vague or non-specific about a company’s operations or materials used.
- Applying intentionally misleading labels such as “green” or “eco-friendly,” which do not have standard definitions and can be easily misinterpreted.
- Implying that a minor improvement has a major impact or promoting a product that meets the minimum regulatory requirements as if it is significantly better than the standard.
- Emphasizing a single environmental attribute while ignoring other impacts.
- Claiming to avoid illegal or non-standard practices that are irrelevant to a product.
- Communicating the sustainability attributes of a product in isolation of brand activities (and vice versa) – e.g. a garment made from recycled materials that is produced in a high-emitting factory that pollutes the air and nearby waterways.
Why care about greenwashing, and how does it relate to climate change?
The science is clear: greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon and methane, from human activities are wrapping the Earth in a blanket of pollution that has warmed the planet and led to severe impacts such as more intense storms, droughts, floods and wildfires.
To limit climate change and preserve a livable planet, emissions need to be cut nearly in half by 2030 and reduced to net zero by 2050. Every fraction of a degree of warming matters and, as put by the former chair of the High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities, “the planet cannot afford delays, excuses, or more greenwashing”.
Greenwashing undermines credible efforts to reduce emissions and address the climate crisis. Through deceptive marketing and false claims of sustainability, greenwashing misleads consumers, investors, and the public, hampering the trust, ambition, and action needed to bring about global change and secure a sustainable planet.
Since the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, an increasing number of companies have pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to net zero – a level where any remaining emissions would be absorbed by forests, the ocean or other “carbon sinks.” However, those claims are often based on questionable plans, including emissions offsetting and “insetting” – rather than actual emission cuts. As such, the transparency and integrity of such claims remain critically low and risk creating a failure to deliver urgent climate action.
In response to the rise in greenwashing in net-zero pledges, the Secretary-General established a High-Level Expert Group tasked with developing stronger and clearer standards for net-zero emissions pledges by companies, financial institutions, cities and regions, and speed up their implementation. In its report “Integrity Matters,” the Expert Group outlined ten recommendations for credible, accountable net-zero pledges and detailed the necessary considerations for each stage towards achieving net zero and addressing the climate crisis. A checklist for companies to follow is available here.
Following the report, UN Climate Change published a Recognition and Accountability Framework and Draft Implementation Plan to begin operationalizing the expert group’s recommendations, improve transparency and maximize the credibility of climate action pledges, plans and transition progress.
To further accelerate action and hear from “first movers and doers,” the UN Secretary-General is convening a Climate Ambition Summit at the UN Headquarters in New York on 20 September 2023. This summit is designed along three tracks: ambition, credibility, and implementation, leaving “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years”.
What can you do?
- Learn more: as a consumer, understanding the common greenwashing tactics and what constitutes sustainable practices and products is crucial to recognizing and avoiding greenwashing.
- Spend wisely: when possible, take time to research and choose products from companies who use resources responsibly and are committed to cutting their emissions and waste. A great place to start your research is to check if the company is aligned with any of the UN’s climate and sustainability initiatives, such as the UNFCCC’s Race to Zero or Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, and the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, among others.
- Consider a product’s lifecycle: when evaluating a product, it is crucial to consider its entire life cycle, starting from the extraction of raw materials to its eventual disposal, while also taking into account the environmental consequences associated with its materials and packaging.
- Look for transparency and accountability: it is often hard to know if companies are on track to meet their net zero commitments, and the absence of standardized and comparable data makes it hard to assess progress. The UN-backed credibility standards and criteria make it possible to reward leading entities taking bold, credible steps.
For more tips on actions, you can take for a healthy planet, check out the ActNow campaign.
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