‘The public doesn’t stand a chance’: Can you spot greenwashing?

31 May 2024

Image: © Oleksandr/Stock.adobe.com

Research has found that educating people about greenwashing only leads to scepticism about all sustainability claims, whether true or not. So, what’s to be done?

New research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Trinity College Dublin, with the support of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has found that people struggle to distinguish between greenwashing and genuine sustainability claims, even when they are trained to spot greenwashing tactics.

As the climate crisis deepens, people increasingly want to make more environmentally friendly consumer choices. But greenwashing, when companies make misleading claims about the environmental performance of a product or service, hinders consumers from making informed choices and penalises genuinely sustainable companies.

In a study conducted with 2,000 adults in Ireland, researchers found that the people who were trained to spot greenwashing were more confident in their ability to do so and were more suspicious of greenwashed claims than the untrained group. In the study, trained participants spotted two of three greenwashed campaigns but also suspected two genuine claims of being greenwashed.

Interestingly, people who were educated about greenwashing in the study exhibited greater desire to engage in climate action, but researchers said further work was needed to explore the reasons for this.

“Greenwashing undermines efforts to support consumers to make environmentally friendly choices and, as this research shows, can lead to confusion and scepticism of genuine environmental claims among consumers,” said Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA’s Office of Evidence and Assessment.

Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan just this week celebrated what she described as a “win against greenwashing” when the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ordered Budweiser to clarify claims on its website that its beer was brewed using 100pc renewable energy, following a complaint made by Boylan. Earlier this year, a similar complaint made by Boylan to the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland was also upheld, with the committee finding that Budweiser’s claims were “exaggerated” and therefore in breach of standards.

Boylan told SiliconRepublic.com that she is not surprised by today’s research findings.

“Corporations spend vast sums of money crafting messages that give themselves a green veneer and deceive ordinary people. The public doesn’t stand a chance.

“I’ve long said greenwashing creates a general cynicism towards climate action, even genuine climate action and the research bears that out.”

Boylan has not only called out Budweiser but also Energia, Applegreen and many others, but she says it’s like “playing whack-a-mole”.

“Corporations lie because it works and crucially, they know they can get away with it. Clearly the current punishment of a few bad headlines is not a deterrent.

“There needs to be much stronger consequences for companies engaged in greenwashing.”

Brand familiarity is key

A significant finding of the research for companies who genuinely make an effort to be green was that people were more likely to trust recognisable brands. One of the examples of greenwashing in the study was from a well-known dairy-alternative brand. People were less likely to suspect their claims than the true green claims of less well-known brands. This finding suggests that brand familiarity and a belief in the perceived sustainability of a product overrides greenwashing training.

“This effect risks inhibiting the growth of sustainable markets for newer brands,” the researchers warn.

Regulation is needed

The researchers conclude that the complexity of greenwashing tactics and the limited resources that people have to assess them means that many types of greenwashing require regulation. “Broader policies and stronger regulation are likely required to address greenwashing, while protecting genuinely sustainable products and companies,” the researchers wrote.

In 2020, the European Commission studied 150 environmental claims for a wide range of products and found that more than half (53pc) provided vague, misleading or unfounded information about the products’ environmental characteristics, and 40pc of claims had no supporting evidence.

The Commission noted that there are 230 sustainability labels and 100 green energy labels in the EU, all with vastly different levels of transparency.

As a result, the Commission put forward the Green Claims Directive, which introduces several requirements for businesses that make green claims, including the need for a life cycle assessment of the product in question to be verified by a competent national authority, and more checks when companies make comparisons with other companies.

The directive was approved by the European Parliament in March of this year, with further developments to be undertaken after the European elections in June.

The researchers support many of the directive’s regulatory actions, saying that it seeks to eradicate many of the types of greenwashing they have looked at in their study.

“Greenwashing makes it difficult for genuinely sustainable businesses to compete against ones that mislead consumers about their environmental performance,” said one the study authors, Dr Shane Timmons of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “Educating consumers about greenwashing doesn’t appear to help, as they simply become more sceptical of all environmental claims. Instead, our results support recent EU directives that ban many forms of greenwashing, but these directives still need to be transposed into Irish law.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic