Published on 8 February 2013 (Updated 31 October 2023)
It’s no secret that the polar ice caps are melting. Polar bears are drowning, the climate is warming, endangered animals are disappearing and films like “2012” or “The Day After Tomorrow” are multiplying with scenarios that are each crazier than the last. If we’re so inundated with information and stories on the subject, it’s because ethics – and particularly ecology and the environment – have become a major concern for people over the last few decades.
Brands are well aware of this, and their advertising is now surfing on this environmental theme whenever they can to attract consumers. On this point, some companies do not hesitate to manipulate their targets with campaigns that are tempting but unfortunately abusive and far from reality… This is what we call Greenwashing.
Let’s take a look at this practice, which is still all too common in B-to-C communications (Business to Customer), whether consciously or not.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the misleading and abusive practice of promoting the ecological and environmental characteristics of a product or service without any real proof. In other words, it is a form of “green” manipulation designed to encourage consumers to purchase.
Ethics have become an important part of everyone’s life. Today’s consumer no longer buys just any product or service. Unscrupulous brands are therefore seeking to improve their image through messages and visuals that seem to correspond to their image, but lack solid arguments.
Consumers hungry for ethical commitments
The 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of a real awareness of ethical issues. This individual questioning became collective, and numerous associations and lobbying organisations emerged to defend social and environmental rights, as well as economic equity.
Defending the environment and ecology have taken on great importance in international issues, with the organisation of several major world events, including:
- 1972: the Stockholm Conference, the first Earth Summit (otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – UNCHE), in Sweden. At this event, the major environmental and ecological issues were seen for the first time as genuine international concerns. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was created shortly afterwards.
- 1987: The Brundtland Commission (otherwise known as the UN World Commission on Environment and Development – WCED). It was during this event that the term “sustainable development” was coined and defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – source: Brundtland Report.
- 1992: Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (otherwise known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – UNCED), Brazil. Recognised as one of the largest gatherings of Heads of State (around a hundred in addition to the 1,500 NGOs also present), this event led to the signing of the Rio Declaration and the introduction of Agenda 21 (recommendations for better management of the planet’s resources).
- 1997: the Kyoto Conference (third United Nations Conference on Climate Change – COP3), in Japan. At this meeting, the first negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol began, with the aim of committing the signatory states to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
All these major events gradually marked the arrival of sustainable development in everyone’s daily lives and the emergence of a need for ethical behavior on the part of consumers (particularly with regard to the environment).
The emancipation of the consumer
At the same time, the 1990s and 2000s saw the emancipation of the consumer thanks to the arrival of new information and communication technologies (NICTs). Their fear of repeated financial crises led them to question not only mass consumption but also advertising, which had become omnipresent and excessive. The rules of the game are changing, and a well-informed public is now imposing values, ethics, transparency and proximity on brands.
Faced with these societal changes, B-to-C communication and the players in the sector have had to redefine their objectives and their areas of application, in order to win back their targets: this is how ethical communication came about, but also the beginnings of Greenwashing.
The signs of Greenwashing
If you look carefully around you, Greenwashing is everywhere. In advertising, in non-media communications (flyers, brochures, etc.) and in many messages on all kinds of media. While some brands consciously use it in an unscrupulous manner, Greenwashing can also be completely unintentional, stemming from good intentions that are a little clumsy.
Here are the signs to recognise Greenwashing:
- Use of vague terms that are not clearly defined or belonging to a technical jargon not understandable by the general public: scientific vocabulary, vague expressions (“eco-responsible” being one of them, often used abusively), etc. Let’s forget the English-language repertoire of “ecofriendly”, a word that sounds good but is definitely imprecise…
- Creation of abusive, false or unsubstantiated messages: highlighting the ecological aspects of dangerous or polluting products (whether this concerns the products themselves, their production chain or the company that makes them), lack of proof, inaccuracies, advertising lies, etc.
- Use of suggestive visuals for communication campaigns: emphasis on the color green and images representing nature (particularly plants), unconsciously leading consumers to believe that the product is ecological, which is not always justified.
- Promotion of false ecolabels or non-objective certifications: generally created entirely for the product, by entities dependent on the parent company and/or the group.
Greenwashing is punishable by law if an advertisement, for example, is found to be misleading.
The hypothetical example of a cosmetics brand
Let’s take an example to illustrate these explanations: the “Pure & Natural” range of a major cosmetics brand and its advertising campaign.
Attention: to this day, no court has ruled on whether or not this advertising campaign is “greenwashed” (nor, to my knowledge, is any complaint pending). The points raised below are simply comments and not accusations. The aim is not to damage the brand’s honour and reputation, but to open up a debate. Without passing judgement on the quality of its products (if we stick to a purely advertising and communications analysis), this campaign seems to bring together a good number of the signs mentioned above…
1 – “95% ingredients of natural origin”
As the main selling point, this message is repeated in the advertising and on the packaging of the products in the range.
The message is rather vague and unsubstantiated. In fact, the expression “of natural origin” does not mean that no chemical transformation has taken place on the components. Nor, by definition, does it guarantee the non-use of controversial natural products, for example. What’s more, the quantities of each ingredient are not known (this information is not legally required). It is therefore very difficult to check the proportions of ingredients of synthetic origin compared to those of natural origin. After studying the list of ingredients, this cream would appear to be healthier than some of its competitors, but it would still contain problematic ingredients: in this case, the advertising message would lose its coherence.
Visually, the message takes the form of a stamp. The brand makes no claim to use any eco-label. However, it uses the visual characteristics specific to existing certifications to give its message seriousness and credibility.
2 – The mention of “organic” ingredients
The argan oil and aloe vera in the products are described as “organic”, but there is no information about their production chain and no proof (packaging, website, TV adverts, etc.). What’s more, we don’t know the quantity contained either. Once again, the sales arguments are not backed up and it is difficult to prove or disprove their veracity.
3 – A visual setting that couldn’t be more natural
All the elements are brought together to create a pleasant, close-to-nature setting, including the sun, the grass and green leaves, the blue sky (the colours are vibrant), the transparent drops of dew, the breeze and the notion of a temperate climate (see the actors’ clothes). The two actors lying on the grass and playing with leaves seem to be very close to nature, but we have to admit that we’re a long way from the usual “morning wash in the bathroom” scene, which is more conventional for anyone who uses moisturiser… This suggestive setting is therefore rather inconsistent with the product.
We could go into even more detail in the analysis, but we chose to present only the most telling arguments.
Conclusion: not just about the environment
Ethical communication is often well-intentioned, but it can’t be improvised. How many small companies still illustrate their Environment tab with tree leaves and meadows in emerald shades, sprinkled with clichés like “let’s go green”, “let’s communicate more cleanly” or “let’s save the planet, it’s in our nature”? Of course, this kind of nice practice is not exactly Greenwashing. However, stereotypes persist and the commitment loses its credibility. Communicating ethically means above all relying on solid, concrete arguments and respecting moral values (transparency, sustainability of actions, consistency, etc.).
Another observation: ethics and deontology are not just about ecological commitments. The concept of sustainable development is built on three interdependent factors. These are called the “3 Ps”: Planet People Profits (Environment, Society and Economy – key factors taken up in the CSR approach of companies). The mistake often made is to omit the societal and economic aspects, which are just as important as the environmental ones.
As a final word, we are not (obviously) asking you to banish green from your palettes and color charts… Let’s simply stop the clichés and put more meaning and sincerity into the steps we take!