It is commonplace in everyday life to buy products based on their environmental record. However, it is often overlooked that companies exaggerate their commitment to the environmental movement.
Corporate greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, can be described as being ‘the corporate practice of making diverting sustainability claims to cover a questionable environmental record’. Due to the escalation of the environmental crisis, companies feel the pressure to deliver strong sustainability messages more than ever before.
Greenwashing began to gain ground throughout the 1980s and peaked in 1990, during the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. During the 1990s, many polls were carried out regarding consumer preferences, with one in particular ascertaining that 77% of Americans allowed a corporation’s environmental record to affect what they purchased .
One of the biggest perpetrators of corporate greenwashing are Nestlé Waters, whose sustainability track-record is very poor
The problem of greenwashing has escalated alongside the environmental crisis. As the issue of climate change has risen to prominence in the mainstream news, companies are feeling even more pressure to build a strong image of sustainability.
A Nielsen poll in 2015 showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, which demonstrates that the consumer interests which arose in the 1990s are only now gaining momentum.
One of the biggest perpetrators of corporate greenwashing are Nestlé Waters, whose sustainability track-record is very poor.
In 2015, the bottled water company illegally tapped into springs in the San Bernardino National Forest in California, whilst they were experiencing their fourth year of drought. Whilst engaging in these activities, the company were running adverts claiming to be the most environmentally friendly bottled water company on the market.
Consumers are still buying into the advertising campaigns put in place by water companies
In 2018, Nestlé Waters ran a television advert ironically entitled ‘Planet of Possibilities’, which saw children running through open green spaces and engaging with nature. This advert is an extreme example of greenwashing, as it plays into the current issues surrounding getting younger generations to be the ‘stewards’ of the planet.
Nestlé's 2019 #climate reporting earned a spot on the @CDP "A" list, but we're not stopping there. We want to be an example to other businesses by setting targets on becoming net nature positive and de-risking dependencies on #biodiversity. https://t.co/zOG8xegKr3 #ClimateAction pic.twitter.com/8EiZLoDpCa— Nestle Waters HQ (@NestleWatersHQ) June 22, 2020
Despite it now being common knowledge that plastic bottles have a detrimental effect on the environment, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, in the last fourteen years consumption of bottle water in the United States has risen steadily.
This statistic, taken in 2016, is evidence of greenwashing in action. Despite there being regular reports containing harrowing statistics stating that only 31% of bottles will be recycled, consumers are still buying into the advertising campaigns put in place by water companies. This highlights the huge negative impact greenwashing is having on the environment, and the intrinsic business power it has.
Nestlé Water is not the only business guilty of greenwashing. Over the last two decades, chemical company DuPont have been involved in numerous lawsuits regarding their environmental impact.
DuPont’s actions have had a catastrophic effect on the environment, and yet they are still engaging with green policies in an attempt to meet consumer needs
The profit acquired from PFOA products for the company totalled over $1 billion annually, which motivated them to cover up the impact that their chemicals were having on local areas. DuPont were finally forced to admit to what they had done; however, they still engage in activities which widely pollute the environment. Their website today boasts of a commitment to water stewardship, stating that ‘water is a precious, undervalued resource and is essential for the world to thrive’.
This broadcast on their website seems hypocritical and a prime example of greenwashing, considering the long-lasting effects their water polluting activities continue to have. DuPont’s actions have had a catastrophic effect on the environment, and yet they are still engaging with green policies in an attempt to meet consumer needs.
It has become apparent that many of the so-called green policies are a very effective way for hotels to save money
The hotel industry can be widely recognised as one of the worst perpetrators of greenwashing. In 2012, TripAdvisor stated that the ‘green’ travel trend is gaining momentum, with 71% of consumers asserting that they plan to make more eco-friendly choices.
Many hotels now brand themselves around been ‘green’, however, the evidence to support this in action is very scarce .
It has become apparent that many of the so-called green policies are a very effective way for hotels to save money. Initiatives such as turning off the lights, and re-using towels have proven very effective in maximising profits as they are using fewer resources .
It has been asserted that ‘the lodging industry is often criticised for a shallow integration of environmental concerns into business values’ .
This idea perfectly sums up the problem of greenwashing in the travel industry as it highlights the fickleness of their promises and emphasises the fact that their environmental concerns are mere façade for their wider business initiatives.
With global attention being drawn to the ever-growing climate and biodiversity crisis, the problem of greenwashing is more relevant today than ever before
Interestingly, Westerveld established the term after staying at the Beachcomber Resort in Fiji, where he noticed the hypocrisy of their sustainability claims, demonstrating how entrenched greenwashing has become in the hotel industry.
I, myself, noticed the problem of greenwashing in the hotel industry when I stayed at the Bahia Principe Resort in Mexico. The hotel broadcast its ‘Ecobahia’ programme, which is described on their website as being a foundation which seeks to ‘undertake protection and conservation initiatives’.
I questioned this commitment based on the treatment of captive dolphins they had on site. I believed the advertising of their eco-programme was a method of diverging from their unethical environmental practices being undertaken through their ‘swim with dolphins’ experience.
With global attention being drawn to the ever-growing climate and biodiversity crisis, the problem of greenwashing is more relevant today than ever before.
With the power of 24-hour news coverage and social media, corporate industries cannot escape the criticism which arises when they are seen to be out of touch with rapid environmental change. Therefore, businesses have more incentive to bolster their ‘green schemes’ through greenwashing in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
It is important that consumers always question the green pledges which are being spoon-fed through polished advertising campaigns, as the power to stop corporate businesses from engaging in these activities is ultimately in their hands. The consumer is set to shape the debate.
 Jack Doyle, “`Enviro Imaging’ for Market Share: Corporations Take to the Ad Pages to Brush Up Their Images” Not Man Apart, Friends of the Earth, 1990
 Heung, V., Fei, C. and Hu, C. (2006), “Customer and employee perception of green hotel – The case of five-star hotels in China”, China Tourism Research, Vol. 23 No. 2, pp. 270-297.
 Rahman, I., Park, J. and Chi, C G. (2014), “Consequences of ‘greenwashing’: consumers’ reactions to hotels’ green initiatives”
 Donovan, T. and McElligott, B. (2000), “Environmental management in the Irish hotel sector – policy and practice”, in Robinson, M., Swarbrooke, J., Evans, N., Long, P., Sharpley, R. (Eds), Environmental Management and Pathways to Sustainable Tourism, The Centre for Travel and Tourism and Business Education, Sunderland.
In article image courtesy of @NestleWatersHQ via Twitter. No changes were made to this image. Second in article image courtesy of Brian Yurasits on Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.
For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.