There is now ever-growing pressure on companies to future-proof their businesses and ensure they are doing the right thing when it comes to sustainability.

Making that happen may mean overhauling normal work-practices, significant investment, and ambitious targets for the year ahead.

And some firms are embracing that challenge with real determination. Others, however, are focusing more of their efforts on looking green rather than making any real change.

What is 'greenwashing'?

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Greenwashing is the practice of making a product, service – or entire business – appear more environmentally or eco-friendly than it actually is.

Think ‘whitewashing’, but in relation to your environmental practices.

And that might be done through things like creative marketing, misdirection or – in some cases – straight up lying.

Why would companies do this?

Being environmentally friendly isn’t just the right thing to do – it also happens to present a significant business opportunity for companies.

That’s because survey after survey shows us that the vast majority of consumers say they are concerned about the environment, and want to do something to live more sustainably.

And many are willing to pay for that privilege, too.

A recent survey by PWC found that 72% of Irish consumers would pay a higher-than-average price for a product if they knew it was recycled, sustainable or eco-friendly.

But, of course, having notions of being more sustainable is one thing. Actually making products that are truly environmentally friendly or sustainable is harder, and often more expensive, than the polluting equivalent.

It can also take time and money for businesses to re-orientate their processes and supply chains to fit that.

So what many do instead is dress up what they’re already doing as green – or over-hype the small efforts they are making – in order to draw in that eager consumer’s spend.

That means they can boost profits without actually having to go through the hassle of making the kind of change that’s required.

What are the ways in which the wool might be getting pulled over our eyes?

This can be as simple as how a product is packaged or marketed.

Think about how many more products are on our shelves now in that kind of rustic, brown paper or cardboard packaging.

It might not even be recycled or recyclable – and what’s inside might not be sustainable or environmentally friendly - but it looks the part, and that’s what matters to the companies.

Or maybe there’s suddenly a splash of green on the packaging or a picture of some leaves, a butterfly, or some other kind of nature scene.

All of this can give the impression of a product that’s environmentally friendly, but it’s pretty much meaningless unless the product inside - and the processes around getting it onto our shelves - has changed too.

But there are other ways that the packaging can deceive us.

For example, we’re all familiar with the recycling symbol – the three folded-over arrows in a pyramid – and that tells us that the packaging in question can be recycled.

Now there are issues with recycling in itself – according to the OECD, globally just 9% of plastic is recycled each year. That includes a lot of plastic that goes into the recycling system, but still ends up getting dumped or burned.

However that pyramid logo tells us, in theory at least, the packaging in question can be recycled.

But there’s a very similar logo that people will also be familiar with – and that’s the one with two arrows in a circle. It kind of looks like a little like a Ying/Yang symbol .

That’s actually a European trademark called the Green Dot – and what that means is that the producer has put money towards a recycling fund.

In Ireland, that would be a fund like Repak.

But that symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that the package itself can be recycled – or that it’s made from recycled materials.

That might not be clear by looking at it, though.

We’re also now seeing issues with disposable coffee cups – many of which now claim to be compostable or recyclable.

That may be true in theory, but in reality it may only be possible in certain circumstances, and when done at specialised facilities. And if that doesn’t happen it ends up being as bad as landfill waste.

We can also be tricked by what we’re able to do with our packaging.

Many retailers now offer recycling zones in-store, allowing customers to dump their packaging after purchase, before they leave.

But that doesn’t reduce waste – they’re just shifting it from your bin to the retailer’s bin. And they may also be part of a trick to juice the retailer’s environmental credentials.

Now, they can claim to have recycled so lots more waste than last year – when in reality they’re just counting your waste in their figures.

What about the language that’s used?

Misleading package design is often accompanied by vague words to help paint a sustainable picture.

‘Natural’ sounds like a good thing but of course it’s pretty meaningless, really. After all uranium, cyanide and arsenic are natural, but you wouldn’t necessarily want them in your salad or shower gel.

A very real example of that is palm oil.

That’s very much a natural product – and it would have been used as a selling point in products in the past - but now we know that the industrial-scale farming of palm oil is having a massive impact in terms of deforestation and pollution in some of the world’s most delicate eco-systems.

Another common word we see is ‘sustainable’ – but, again, on its own it’s pretty much meaningless. There’s no legally-enforceable definition of the word.

So companies can say their products are "sustainably sourced", without having to actually back that up with anything real.

There are some foundations and enterprises that firms can partner, with the aim of ensuring they are following sustainable practices. But there are so many different ones out there, it’s impossible to keep track of.

Some are independent, others are actually run by the corporations themselves, and trying to figure out which is doing the right thing and spending its resources well is nearly impossible.

Another linguistic or marketing trick to look out for is the use of loads of context-free numbers and stats to bambozzle consumers.

So think about companies saying they’ve reduced their emissions by X% – or shrunk their packaging by Y%.

That sounds good, but if you don’t know where the starting point is, or how it stacks up against others, you can’t really know whether it’s really meaningful.

Likewise, another marketing trick are phrases like ‘our most... ever’.

You may hear a car company talking about ‘our most efficient hatchback ever’ or ‘fewer emissions than competitors’.

But just because it’s slightly better than the last gas-guzzler they made, doesn’t mean it’s good for the environment.

What about all of the targets companies are setting for themselves?

Again, these are often wrapped up in very vague, wishy-washy language.

‘We pledge to be carbon neutral by 2030’, ‘we aim to eliminate plastic waste by 2040’ and so on.

It’s all very nice – and perhaps very well-intentioned.

And it’s very much designed to give the consumer the impression that their brand of choice is on the same side as them, and is doing everything they can to become environmentally friendly.

But ultimately, until these targets are actually met, they’re really just wishful thinking.

There’s rarely any external authority that’s overseeing these plans, often there’s a very vague roadmap for how these targets will actually be met and, if they’re not, there’s no penalty or punishment.

And while companies will be very loud about their targets at the time, they’re not going to make much of a fuss if or when they fail to reach them.

So we might not even realise that those climate goals have been missed and quietly put out to pasture.

What about carbon offsetting?

Offsetting is the idea of paying someone else to counter-act your own emissions, and it’s a very popular way for companies to say they’re cutting carbon or going ‘carbon neutral’.

So that might be done by buying carbon credits from another company that actually is reducing its emissions, by investing in a renewable project like a wind-farm, or by paying for the planting of trees.

But there are a number of problems with this entire concept.

For a start, it doesn’t actually reduce emissions. It just means companies can pay their way out of the sin, like some kind of environmental indulgences.

A good example is a certain fuel forecourt operator here that offers carbon neutral petrol and diesel. It’s made from the same fossil fuels as any other petrol or diesel, and your car still pumps out as much Co2 as it did before – but they say they offset the impact of your pollution as part of the price.

The overall theory of offsetting is that it’s putting a price on pollution and the cost will gradually go up, to the point where it’s cheaper to actually do the hard work and cut your emissions.

But really we’re not there yet, especially for the mega-profitable companies of this world that tend to be responsible for an equally large portion of our pollution.

Another problem with offsetting is that you’re often just transferring the problem to someone else.

For example, a company can pay to take on the carbon-capturing benefits of a piece of forest, but they’re not actually creating anything – it just means the company they’re buying it from now has a load of emissions on their books.

And even if the company is actually getting new trees planted – it takes years, even decades for those trees to actually become a meaningful counter to pollution.

That assumes that they survive, and aren’t chopped down in the mean time.

It also assumes they’re planted at all – because a lot of these tree-planting schemes are done in poorer countries, because it’s cheaper than doing it here.

But these countries often have lots more corruption – and there isn’t the necessary amount of auditing and monitoring to ensure that what’s being paid for actually happens.

Despite that, the companies are counting the environmental benefits of those investments now – years before they ever materialise, assuming they ever do.

What are some examples of greenwashing?

A lot of big clothing retailers have been trying to green themselves in recent years – and they’ve launched lots of sustainability programmes and product lines as part of those efforts.

But a report by an NGO called Changing Markets said that the benefits of most of those things were, at best, unsubstantiated, or even misleading.

For example, it said a lot of these ‘sustainable’ clothing lines still used acrylics – so plastic-based materials. They’re harder to recycle, while they also contribute to ocean pollution through microplastics.

It said all big retailers fell short of their promises but cited H&M as the worst of the bunch in terms of misleading claims. Changing Markets claimed H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’ was actually using more synthetic materials than its regular product line.

Elsewhere, Ryanair was accused of greenwashing, and was in fact pulled up by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK, over an ad claiming it was Europe’s lowest emissions airline.

In overall terms Ryanair is one of the biggest polluting airlines in Europe – not least because of the sheer scale of its operation.

But its low emissions claim was based on a per-passenger basis – and because it gets more people onto its planes, which are also more efficient than rivals, it said its emissions were lower.

That being said, the ASA did take issue with some of the figures it provided when challenged on the claim – including the fact that it used old and in some cases limited industry data.

Eventually Ryanair was told to pull the ad from the UK – though the airline has stood over the marketing, and pointed out that authorities in other countries didn’t have any issue with its claim.

But perhaps the biggest greenwashing exercise in recent history has to be Volkswagen – which went above and beyond creative marketing or questionable data.

As people may remember, a bit over a decade ago, it began selling diesel cars – mainly in the US, but in Europe too - with some seemingly impossibly low emissions.

So low, in fact, that they qualified for green car subsidies in the US

Fast forward to 2015, and it turned out that those emissions really were impossibly low – in fact they were entirely fictional.

Because Volkswagen had fitted what was called a ‘defeat device’, which could detect when cars were being tested and temporarily lower its emissions... but in the real world, the pollution was far higher. As much as 40 times higher than testing suggested.

The end result has been a lot more pollution than promised, and Volkswagen paying out billions of euro in fines and compensation on the back of their deception.

So what can we do to avoid being duped?

It’s easy to get disillusioned by all of this, because even if you’re doing your best it’s hard not to feel hypocritical.

And there’s a certain point at which you have to take a company at its word.

After all, it’s going to be very hard for anyone to go and verify every sustainability claim, or trawl through every label or list of ingredients to find out if it’s as eco-friendly as it claims.

Ultimately the first principles of being more sustainable still apply – the less packaging, the better. The more local the product, the better.

But that’s only going to get you so far – especially in Ireland, where we’re reliant on imports in so many different product categories.

So really we need better regulation on this – and quickly.

There is some sign of hope coming from the European Commission, which is pushing through legislation around the circular economy. This is the idea of reusing and recycling more and reducing our reliance on new materials.

As part of that, it wants to force companies to do better on making products durable and fixable – but it is also looking at creating a tighter definition of terms like ‘sustainable’.

It’s also considering a ban on any nice, fluffy environmental language unless it can be backed up with hard evidence.

If that happens, and if it’s enforced, it will hopefully go some way towards stopping companies from abusing consumers’ desire to do the right thing.