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Beyond Preposterous – the corporate art of greenwashing

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I hope you had an appropriately silly April fool’s day yesterday and didn’t have the wool pulled over your eyes too badly. I am a great trickster and enjoy pulling pranks on my friends and colleagues. The one place I don’t like to be fooled though is with unsubstantiated claims by companies – commonly known as  corporate green washing.

As the public become more environmentally aware, companies  – as one would expect – are  seeking  to keep up with the zeitgeist.  Many companies are making real efforts to become sustainable, unfortunately others  use green PR or green marketing  deceptively to make us think that their products or policies are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.

As consumers we should be taking more responsibility for the choices that we make and mustn’t underestimate the power that we have. When buying a product we should not take anything at face value but dig a little bit deeper and make a proactive decision on whether to support a particular product.

To assist you in prioritising buying green, ethical and sustainable products here are some suggestions for you to consider:

1. Read your labels carefully and look out for the following words:

  • “organic” does not necessarily mean that it is certified organic. Look for an organic certification, such as, EcoCert, Bio-org, Soil Association, BDIH, BCS.  Here is a list of bodies in South Africa.
  • “Environmentally friendly” – is a frequently used term, which should be backed up by further information.
  • The recycling sign on packaging does not necessarily mean that that packaging has been made from recyclable materials.
  • “Natural” – there are many toxic elements found in nature – such as arsenic!
  • Labels on products that say “against animal testing” – the product could still be tested on animals. Look out for  “not tested on animals” or for the Beuaty without Cruelty certification.

2. If you are unsure, take the time to contact the company for more information that can substantiate their claims.

3. Look out for claims like:

  • “CFC Free”. The use of CFCs were banned 20 years ago.
  • A flat screen TV may claim its lead-free – but can contain other harmful chemicals.

4. Use your common sense – look out for obvious green washing:

  • Keep scale in perspective. How does a company ‘green’ action compare with the environmental impact of the company’s operations as a whole?
  • What are the meanings of the words that companies use in their advertising, like “clean” or “green” or “environmentally friendly”?

The labelling applies to most, if not all, the products that we purchase to fulfill our needs and wants.

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But how much difference can one person or one family make? With every item that you purchase, you have a decision to make and you have a choice to make a decision that is aligned with your values – whether it is fair trade or not harmful to the environment, etc. The power is indeed in our hands – get to know what you are buying or choosing to buy. It may seem like a daunting task to delve into each and every product that you regularly purchase – so why not take it a step at a time? Explore what you had for breakfast or the next birthday present you are buying for a friend.

  • A great example of when consumers did ask questions which made a real difference was over an advert by Shell with a picture of a factory emitting flowers from its smoke stacks, the slogan reading:  “don’t throw anything away as there is no away”. Shell was advertising that they use their waste CO2 to grow flowers and waste sulphur to make concrete. around its use of its waste for new uses. However, it turned out that Shell was only doing this for one of their factories which amounted to merely 0.325% of their CO2 emissions! Following a huge public outcry, the corporation was forced to pull their advert.

Case in point, public opinion does matter. Your opinion matters. Don’t be fooled – find out about what you are buying and what you are buying into. Let’s make every decision count!

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