To buy, but what to buy: is green marketing fundamentally hypocritical?
The conversation surrounding green washing is not new, some of the examples discussed here, such as the BP re-brand and the Volkswagen scandal are among the most infamous examples of greenwashing and sparked very public backlash. Yet as public interest in individual sustainable choices expands, with a growth in green or ethical brands to meet this growing interest, the ways that Eco-conscious marketing can be exploited has only grown and it's perhaps time to take another look at greenwashing, sustainable branding, and the power of individual choice.
The 2002 BP re-brand to “Beyond Petroleum” is an example of greenwashing that lives in infamy, the £200 million new identity intended to declare BP’s fresh commitment to renewable energy. Contextually, the World’s 5 Oil giants spend around £153 million a year lobbying against climate policy to tackle global warming, with BP being the top spender, and an increasing amount is being spent on social media to push an oil positive agenda and interfere with legislation that would introduce restrictions. While the 6 Sins of Greenwashing study published by TerraChoice in 2007 would suggest that most examples of greenwashing are brought about through well intended ignorance, it is hard to imagine that the BP re-brand was undergone with nothing other than malicious intent. From the logo, designed to invoke the sun, to the name change “Beyond Petroleum'' the re-brand was a deliberate and calculated attempt to move away from the public image associated with oil while continuing to operate as one of the world's greatest polluters. The March 2006 Alaskan oil spill, and 2010 spill at a BP oil rig - the largest marine oil spill in history - highlighted the shallowness of BP’s public commitments, and public relations soured. By 2011 their green assets, which were always a minority of their investment, had been quietly sold off. Public image and the maintenance of ignorance towards climate change is necessary for BP to avoid restrictive legislation that tackles climate change. To paint the company as conscious is to give the public the idea that legislation is not necessary as the company will increasingly choose a sustainable path without interference; the greenwashing of the brand in this instance is a deliberate and malicious attempt to avoid meaningful change.
“Oil majors’ climate branding sounds increasingly hollow and their credibility is on the line. They publicly support climate action while lobbying against binding policy. They advocate low-carbon solutions but such investments are dwarfed by spending on expanding their fossil fuel business.” Edward Collins
Following the 2010 oil spill GreenPeace set its sights on the “Beyond Petroleum” re-brand and opened up a competition to redesign the logo. With around 1900 entries and over 650000 views the competition highlights the vitriolic reaction audiences can have to this kind of clear-cut hypocrisy. The logos themselves have filtered through the internet, even as BP currently attempts another Eco-conscious re-brand the competition entries are a continued stain on their public image. While it's clear that audiences are sensitive to hypocrisy, the extreme nature and publicity of the oil spill contrasted directly with BP's attempts at a green face in ways that foster an emotive reaction. Often the problem with sustainability consumerism is that the sustainable choice is not always clear cut and can often be poorly defined by “language pollution”, that is words that allude to green commitments but have a vague and illusive definition, which confuses and misleads the consumer. In the cases where sustainability is not a simple ‘this or that’ kind of choice it would be more effective for brands to be upfront about what they are doing and why in a way that promotes education and allows the consumer to make an informed choice, rather than positioning its product or service as ‘The Sustainable Choice’. Lobbying by oil giants, as well as the meat and dairy industry makes it clear that these industries see environmental education as a legitimate threat to their bottom line, and it’s essential that brands that seek to promote sustainability prioritise education.
Conscious consumerism, and the belief that individual buying choices can have a meaningful impact on the world requires a great deal of good faith on behalf of companies and brands, a level of good faith that simply does not exist when the market is calibrated to maximise constant consumption and disposability. Even where regulation exists to limit the environmental impact of a product, companies would rather dedicate time, funding and resources to exploit the faults in regulation rather than evolve to meet the demands of that legislation. For example Volkswagen's (VW) defeat device was used to lower the emissions produced by their cars under test conditions, when they were not being driven under these conditions the engines emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above what is allowed in the US. The standards that VW were failing to meet were established in the 1970 Clean Air Act. Even when companies are legally compelled to meet environmental standards they choose to exploit and circumvent these standards for the sake of their own profit - to believe that without legislation companies would feel morally obligated to compromise their own profit for the sake of environmental responsibility is an optimistic but short sighted interpretation of the power of the individual consumer.
Greenwashing is an extension of a consumer culture that prioritises convenience and personal want above all else- it finds new ways to position commodities as relevant necessities, and sell not just a product but a sense of individual morality in order to continue to promote continued consumption: just buy this and you will have played your part, but don’t stop buying. Its the face of a culture attempting to maintain relevance without any kind of meaningful change. So what can a brand actually do to commit to sustainability? Brands exist to sell products, specifically sell their products, perhaps the solution is to rethink our entire process of consumption and promote buying less, prioritising long-lasting quality that replaces the cycle of disposability. This focus on quality can often be found in sustainability minded outdoor brands such as Kanken or Patagonia. In particular Patagonia has deliberately discouraged consumption in their marketing, with their anti black Friday spread “Don't Buy This Jacket” and “The Common Threads Initiative” campaign that promoted mending and repairing clothes above throwing them away and buying something new.
This kind of anti-consumerist consumerism has its caveats, it still values products but it is more honest about the role that product serves, it values a personal relationship with items that promotes a long lasting connection, which while promoting the brand itself also nurtures the kind of sentiment that is directly opposed to disposability and waste. Rather than only decrying waste it celebrates quality and connection. The greatest barrier to this kind of consumerism is of course the price tag, with men’s jackets costing anywhere from £100 to £800. These products are expensive, which in itself promotes a less is more attitude, but it also creates a problem of accessibility, it turns sustainability into a choice that can only be practiced by the wealthy, and in turn generates a sense of exclusivity that positions sustainable choice into a badge of privilege and an expression of wealth. However, this accessibility issue is not necessarily the responsibility of the brand as long as the price tag reflects the compensation of labour. As it stands Patagonia rate 50-60% on the Fashion Transparency Index and have been rated “It’s a Start” for labour conditions. It is essential that working conditions and fair pay be considered as an environmental responsibility; to value the labourer allows not just the consumer but every person involved in the product economic freedom to make sustainable choices that break away from the cycle of disposability. As highlighted by Alden Wicker, accessibility in sustainable choices goes beyond the price tag, not everybody has the time or energy to seek out sustainable choices and commit themselves to extensive research, nor do they necessarily have the skills or time to take up habits that inherently promote sustainability such as cooking, sewing, or gardening. To lessen this financial barrier the solution is not to value the product as less but to value labour in society as more. There is no sustainability in the market until the market values labour enough to embolden the consumer to see consumer choices as long term investments.
“We’re working ever-longer hours, which leaves little time for sitting down to home-cooked meals, much less sewing, mending, and fixing our possessions.” Alden Wicker
Green marketing has reached such a proliferation in the market that products that have failed to consider their environmental impact can adopt green branding as a means to not only continue to engage in harmful practices without consequence, but to appeal to a new market of Eco-conscious consumers. The “re-branding” of plastic clothing as vegan leather is a key example of the exploitation of sustainable marketing terms and visuals. By adopting the term “vegan leather” brands are able to push the image of sustainability while maintaining fundamentally harmful practices. The ethics page for KOI, a “100% vegan” footwear eCommerce website, assures the customer they are committed to sustainable practices. However there is almost no meaningful information regarding these practices, or the alternative materials that they are using in place of leather “All our shoes are manufactured in China using ethically sourced and vegan-friendly materials while adhering to safe manufacturing processes and working conditions that we have worked hard to ensure our manufacturers follow.” This is where the language of sustainability can be used to deflect responsibility, for a product to be vegan friendly in the most literal sense it needs only to avoid animal products, yet a large part of veganism is the environmental impact. To position its products as vegan friendly KOI adopts the presumption that the materials they are using are a less harmful alternative to animal products. Failing to disclose the exact nature of those materials, which is in all likelihood plastic, in terms that are clear about the environmental trade off is deliberately misleading. While there is an environmental cost to all forms of production, and any alternative material or practice will come with it’s own environmental trade-off, it is essential that brands that are marketing toward Eco-conscious consumers disclose this trade off in order to allow the consumer to make an informed choice. If the power of consumerism to promote sustainability is that the market will adapt to consumer trends, than by dressing up unethical practices in ethical terminology brands rob the consumer of the ability to financially incentivize brands into considerations for sustainability. When consumers are unable to discern between genuinely sustainable products and harmful products dressed in environmental language legitimate progress can not penetrate the market.
The slogan of KOI “vegan, fashionable, affordable” highlights some of the key points of contention in current sustainability discourse, by positioning vegan as on par with fashionable, environmental credentials are positioned as a selling point, something the brand is clearly aware of and attempting to capitalise off of. The declaration of affordability also highlights the accessibility barrier to sustainability, however cheap products that are dependent on disposability as an alternative to harmful materials is not just a band aid solution but one that only serves to perpetuate the problem rather than offer genuine fixes. By producing the shoes in China, with only vague commitments to working conditions, with the intention of selling to a western audience exploitation is baked into the brand in ways that inherently limit accessibility - how can an exploited worker anywhere in the world make sustainable choices? This kind of branding is detrimental at every stage and promotes a fundamentally individualistic approach to sustainability in which the buying habits of western consumers are supposed to have more power than entire systems of exploitation. When a product is bought at a price that values labour, not only is the consumer's choice considered but the workers choice, promoting sustainability at all levels.
Any form of green marketing that encourages consumption, while claiming to be a new, sustainable kind of excess is inherently hypocritical. There is no sustainability in a cycle that values consumerism and disposability above all. To maintain a level of authenticity in branding that surrounds Eco-conscious consumers or products the marketing must seek to educate and engage the user, and be transparent about the environmental costs as much as the positive steps a brand has taken are celebrated. Most importantly a truly sustainable future requires a truly new way of thinking, not just about the products that we consume, but every stage of the cycle of production. It is essential we value labour at all levels in order to prioritise the product of labour as a thing of quality to be cherished, rather than excess and disposability as a display of personal wealth.
"To end plastic pollution, we first need to eliminate language pollution" Marcus Fairs
6 sins of greenwashing/A Study of Environmental Claims in North American Consumer Markets /TerraChoice Environmental Marketing Inc. (November 2007) - Emily Frances
"Top oil firms spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies, says report" Sandra Laville
NGO Letter PB Dairy Restrictions
"Volkswagen: The scandal explained" Russell Hotten
"Conscious consumerism is a lie. Here’s a better way to help save the world" Alden Wicker
"Marking Earth Day Inc." Geoffrey Johnson