Examples of Greenwashing and Why It Is A Problem

What Does Greenwashing Mean?

To start, what does greenwashing mean? Greenwashing occurs when a company (even a well-meaning one) claims to be environmentally conscious for marketing purposes but isn’t making any quantifiable sustainability efforts. Greenwashing has become omnipresent in our modern vocabulary. However, just because the term was not widely used until the 21st century, examples of greenwashing date back to two centuries before.

Greenwashing: When Risks Go Unchecked

Countless products made their way into American homes in the late 19th and 20th centuries that were incredibly harmful to both human and environmental health.1 Looking at examples of greenwashing, the story of how lead made its way into the market is often forgotten, though it is still causing significant harm in vulnerable communities, most notably Flint, Michigan.  

According to the CDC, approximately 99,000 Flint residents (about the seating capacity of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) were exposed to lead in their drinking water between 2014 and 2015. This exposure is particularly harmful to pregnant women and children as lead is known to cause diminished IQ, damaged hearing and learning disabilities. Sadly, the history of lead begins long before the horrors of Flint.

It has been known for over a century that lead is a harmful substance, and if it were not for the fierce marketing tactics of the Lead Industries Association in the 1930s, the damages we have seen since would likely have been avoided. Instead, lead manufacturers and trade groups pushed the narrative that lead was part of a healthy, happy household. Known for its ability to produce bright colors, it became a hallmark of post-depression jubilance. The Lead Association’s power grew, and they began convincing cities across the U.S. to add requirements for lead into building codes.

However, by the 1950s, millions of children had been poisoned by the substance (along with animals who drank from the contaminated water sources), forcing the media and federal health officials to report on the chronic side effects of lead poisoning. Even still, the Lead Association continued to use marketing (in other words, an extreme form of greenwashing) to convince consumers that lead was safe.

Instead of coming clean that their product was unsafe and publicly apologizing to all the families affected by lead poisoning, the Lead Association used marketing once more to keep their product on shelves and money in their pockets. They used politics and class as an excuse, saying that lead poisoning was “a disease inevitable to slum dwelling.”

Eventually, the Lead Association was forced to put a stop to its lies, but the effects of this unchecked corporate behavior have continued to poison children and water sources. Though tragic, the story of the lead industry provides an important example of what can happen when industries are blinded by their profiteering and ignore long-term risks to both their communities and their business. Not only have countless individuals lost a chance at a healthy life, but the lead industry no longer exists. In other words, when risks are overlooked – including the risks to human and environmental well-being – no one wins.

Beyond Environmental Impacts

Beyond the catastrophic impact that greenwashing can have on our environment and personal health and safety, making false and misleading statements about your company’s ESG positioning can even land you in hot water with the SEC. Don’t let your organization become yet another example of greenwashing – avoiding it and instead implementing meaningful ESG practices will help identify risks and opportunities – it’s not just a box to check.

Author: Sofia Assab, ESG Analyst | s[email protected]


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