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An introduction into the issue of greenwashing amongst organisations and its impacts.
© RMIT University 2017

Greenwashing refers to the misleading information divulged by some organisations in order to appear sustainable and obtain the favour of the public.

A common practice used to create this misperception can be traced back to what is known as ‘self-certification’. In these cases, as also advised by the claiming company, it is up to the public to check the accuracy of the ‘eco-label’. So, in a sense, they claim to be sustainable but leave the responsibility with the public to check if it is true. This practice has led to a discussion about whether symbolic actions (greenwashing) are better for business than substantive actions (sustainability commitment). The announcements by many leaders in relation to this issue is that pretending to do things, without physically doing them, is always a cheaper option and therefore more profitable than the alternatives.

Looking at this issue from a different perspective, some people (and researchers) believe that greenwashing can often be the result of a narrow view of what is a broad and complex phenomenon. That is, greenwashing represents a genuine mistake due to the organisation’s limited knowledge of a very new and evolving field, such as sustainability.

A popular example could be the difference between cleaning for health and indoor air quality (AIQ). Both practices come under the umbrella of green cleaning since they aim to minimise the impact of chemical agents on human health. Nonetheless, upon detailed analysis, the AIQ only focuses on one of the three possible modes of exposure to chemical agents: Inhalation, Ingestion and/or Absorption through the skin are not addressed. In other cases, there are some biobased products that truly contain organic ingredients, which leads the public to think of them as green products. However in reality, the fact that the ingredients are naturally derived is not sufficient to make these products sustainable. Their co-ingredients, toxicity level or packaging, just to cite a few factors, can easily be a warning that these products may be somewhat green but in no way fall into the category of sustainable.

Some would argue that these businesses should have known better about what sustainability really means, and how comprehensive it has to be in order to be publicly claimed, but despite this, such green claims about these products have some foundation in truth, albeit limited.

Based on the above information and your general knowledge, how do you consider greenwashing? Do you think it is an outright attempt to be deceptive, a marketing tool, or a mistake due to the misinterpretation of rigorous sustainable policies and procedures.
Post your thoughts in the Comments area.
© RMIT University 2017
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