So we ask the question: Are brands really greenwashing? What is greenwashing? Why was it created? Are brands making themselves seem more environmental than they actually are? And is sustainability from the brand perspective pure marketing?
We talk about this issue and how it’s affecting brands, like H&M, Ikea, McDonald’s, etc. Are these brands really doing something for the environment? Who is going to challenge their statements? And in reality, how truthful are keywords like “responsibly made”, sustainable, eco-friendly, antibiotic-free?
Listen to our podcast here:
Recorded on August 20, 2021
Brad Breininger: 0:00
Hi everybody, and welcome to this week’s everything is brand. As sustainability gets more and more important, we’re asking the question this week – are brands green washing? Greenwashing is a term that was created based on the term whitewashing, which means to not represent in the most truthful way. And when it comes to environmental issues, there are brands out there that are making themselves seem a little more environmental than they actually might be. Or they’re putting environmental issues at the forefront when a whole bunch of other things that they’re doing are not necessarily aboveboard. So are brands doing this to an extent where it’s becoming a problem, Sasha, what do you think?Sasha Codrington: 0:54
So I’m coming at this from a background in fashion and greenwashing is quite a big discussion there because there’s a lack of regulation on clothing companies in terms of what they can claim. There’s no particular definition for a piece of clothing to be conscious, sustainable, etc, all of those are terms that can easily be put in marketing for fashion without any real check legally. And this came into discussion with h&m in particular, because of their conscious line. That’s something that they’ve been pushing for, I’d say three years now. And the only difference with h&m conscious is that they’re changing their materials, they’re using organic cotton in most cases. And on all of the advertising, they claim that it’s sustainable and environmentally conscious. But of course, there’s no no background on that, organic cotton still takes an unbelievable amount of water to process. And they’re still making 1000s and 1000s of these shirts and shipping them across the entire world and not even necessarily getting sold. So it’s created a real problem and h&m has doubled down on that greenwashing concept with their recycling bins that they put in their stores, the compliment to the conscious line. And you can bring in old garments, h&m garments, or otherwise drop them into the bin and the idea is that they get recycled. And the incentive is that the consumer then gets a coupon that they can put towards their next purchase at h&m, of course, and the problem with these and with all clothing recycling is that the majority of it is still going to landfill. h&m conscious, their recycling program, about only 35% is actually getting recycled. The other 65% is as good as putting it in the garbage, unfortunately. But they’ve managed to spin this to be a huge marketing plus for them. And of course, it’s also turning into more purchases for them because of those coupon codes. So that’s something that’s been going on in fashion to a huge degree for years and something that’s coming into more and more discussion in terms of what are the legal next steps and how can we control this?
Brad Breininger: 2:58
I think that there one brand that is in this area, but the whole concept of fast fashion, right? If you look at a lot of these organizations, and these brands where you used to buy a shirt, and it would last a few years now it’s maybe lasts a few wears, and by the time you wash it and turn it into something, it starts to fray or pill or whatever it might be. And I know that this term fast fashion has become part of this whole greenwashing discussion as well.
Sasha Codrington: 3:26
Yeah, it has because ultimately any fast fashion brand, no matter what their marketing, no matter what their materials are, it’s not a sustainable model – the only way that fashion can be more sustainable and more conscious is if it is slowed down. And like you said, it’s a garment that you can keep for years, it’s a garment that you can continue to repair and get a lot of use out of and that’s just not possible with fast fashion right now.
Brad Breininger: 3:49
It’s difficult too I think even outside of fashion, the more and more that we consume. These brands are looking for ways to not make themselves look like these terrible organizations that are polluting the planet. I mean, do you guys think that this is where a lot of this greenwashing is coming from? What do you think is the motivation behind it and why these brands are trying to get away with some of these things?
Marko Zonta: 4:13
It’s pure marketing, right? So right now sustainability, environmental concerns are top of mind more and more, because of what’s going on like rising temperatures, fires, floods, all kinds of issues. People are starting to really think about it and talk about it. And this is a huge marketing opportunity. So companies are viewing this as an opportunity to sell more, grow, and basically the opposite of what they really should be doing. But I mean, you can blame a company for wanting to be profitable and wanting to do well in the marketplace. The question really is is it the responsibility of those companies? Or is it the responsibility of all of us to actually pay attention to what’s going on? When it comes to greenwashing, the problem is that they’re presenting information in such a way That you think that they’re actually doing something positive, when in reality they’re not. One great example of that is this past week, I was reading an article where McDonald’s ran a campaign across Canada, claiming that their Canadian beef is now sustainably sourced. So that’s the headline, and that’s on all of our advertising. But then in fine print, it basically states that 30% is potentially environmentally sourced. Even that is not really a claim that they can actually own because there are so many other problems with that. They ran that campaign, and they would continue to run that campaign if they actually weren’t required, there wasn’t a lawsuit filed against them and they have to take it down. Right? So it’s basically companies run with those headlines, because who is going to challenge, who’s going to actually take the time to research that and figure out, is it true? Or are they really doing something about it? Or is it just a marketing headline,
Brad Breininger: 6:01
it’s interesting, because in the past, if an organization was seen whitewashing, or putting false claims forward, it could bring an organization down, it could really force consumers to just either boycott or not use that organization’s products. And now it just feels a little bit like they’re going to try and get away with whatever they can. And if they do get caught, there’s a slap on the hand and they move on to the next campaign. It’s a little difficult, how do we police this? How do we get back to this place where us as consumers understand what’s going on and use our mighty dollars to get our voices heard?
Marko Zonta: 6:36
I really think that consumers have to discount those claims completely. Based on the research that I was reading 98% of such claims are false – 98%. If only 2% are actually truthful, you might as well discount all of them. I was driving just a couple of days ago, and I saw a billboard that said responsibly made. What does that mean? It’s completely meaningless. It’s a headline, there is no backup, there is absolutely nothing. And then there’s words like sustainable, eco friendly, and then in the food area, antibiotic free? Well, a lot of people are concerned about that. But guess what, you just put that on the Billboard, who’s gonna question it, who’s going to do the research, and in some cases they simply change the name of the medication that they’re giving to the livestock or whatever it may be, and they get around that. Cruelty free is another one, right? It’s not necessarily directly an environmental concern but again, it’s misleading, right? It’s providing information that is completely false. But people just believe it because it’s easy. It’s there, it’s on packaging. So you just go with it?
Brad Breininger: 7:41
Well, it’s a slippery slope. Consumers have almost been primed for this kind of wording. Even if you look back before we’re talking about greenwashing, before we’re talking about the environment. Even terminology, like virtually spotless, that was used in marketing and advertising. Virtually spotless? Hold on a second, spotless is either spotless, or it isn’t. And what does virtually even mean, or my favorite in the cosmetic industry, which is one of the most famous nondescript lines of all time, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Does that mean that they’re gone? Does it mean that I just can’t see them? Does it mean, depending on the level of my eyesight, they look less? It’s just all of these meaningless words. It’s like you were saying about eco friendly, what is eco friendly mean that I don’t know, that you pet a llama, when you’re ruining the environment, it creates a vernacular that organizations and brands can go to to tinge and prop up what it is that they’re trying to get across? Because this is what people are talking about. But it doesn’t actually say anything. And like you said, no one’s going to do the research. No one’s going to call them out on it. It’s really not real or authentic. Is it?
Christian Rosenthal | ZYNC: 8:54
I disagree with you, when you say no one’s gonna catch that. In this day and age, consumers are getting more critical of what brands and companies are sayin . For example, if you talk abo t zero emissions cars, yeah, y u plug them to a charger and th n you’re not emitting co2, righ ? But where does that electric ty come from? People are start ng to call these things out I don’t know if you remember I EA when they brought this buyb ck scheme, and you were able to give your things back and et some money, while they were alled out, it was actually foun that they had some illegal busi esses in Ukraine or somethin like that. So people are start ng to call these things out. So if brands are not authentic o what they’re saying, then that leaves them in a worse place th n they were before begi
Marko Zonta: 9:51
The problem is that I think that there’s so much of it going on now, it’s just most of it is false. And they just say it and they get in trouble, well they remove it and they move on. Brad to your point earlier, there are no real negatives to it – you remove it, you move on. But in the meantime, you’ve benefited from making those false claims.
Brad Breininger: 10:09
Yeah, it’s like that old adage of ask for forgiveness instead of permission.
Marko Zonta: 10:14
A really good example is Volkswagen, right, with the whole diesel issue that they had. This was well, I don’t know, three years ago or so when they were misrepresenting the efficiency of their diesel engine and that blew up and it was a major issue. They were sued and all kinds of stuff happened. But really, how much did they benefit from those false claims all those years? And yes, they got caught, and they have to pay out a lot of money. But really, when you think about it, it’s probably still a much smaller amount than their profit. I think that it’s really on two levels, consumers have to start paying attention to it. And I think governments have to step up their game, because really, nobody else has the power to actually change anything.
Brad Breininger: 10:56
But aren’t governments, aren’t politicians funded by these corporations? That’s a longer discussion that we don’t need to get into here. But the reality is, is that there’s an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is consumerism. And that ecosystem includes having to be profitable quarter after quarter, these organizations, they need to find a way to make the money. And yes, we can spend differently. And I think that we have huge influence in how we spend, but is there also a need for all of us as consumers to stand up and say, look, we don’t believe these things we’re gonna call you out. And to your point, Christian, they’re being called out more than ever. But the big brands that we talked about, those are major global brands, I would imagine that they’re not the worst purveyors of this kind of communication or marketing. I think that there might be others who are flying under the radar that are probably doing even worse things, these brands like h&m, and McDonald’s and IKEA, as bad as some of those examples may be, these are also brands that do look for ways to make things better. But I would imagine that there’s a lot of other brands out there where they don’t even care, they’re just trying to make as much money as they possibly can and they’ll say whatever they need to say.
Sasha Codrington: 12:10
I would give one example of a company that is not playing the game of back and forth, let’s see what we can get by and deal with the PR later. One company that’s actually really committing and showing action and consumers are responding to is Patagonia. They’re selling clothing, but they put a guarantee on their clothing so that you can always get it repaired. And they’re encouraging their consumers to not buy, which is really interesting. I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen – they’ll buy out full page ads in newspapers that say, this Christmas, don’t buy this jacket with a picture of one of their Patagonia puffers because they stand behind reducing their impact, having environmental products. And I would say that’s been a huge plus for them, and they’re able to benefit off that marketing long term, because it is true. So they’ve been doing very well with younger generations especially. And you can go to their website, and you can see the actual actions that they’re taking, how it impacts you as a consumer, because you do have that ability to repair products with them. So I’d say there is a real plus, if you’re a company that can get it right and actually stand behind some of the claims that you’re making.
Brad Breininger: 13:16
I feel like a company like Patagonia, and I do know a little bit about them. But I feel like a brand like that has built sustainability right into their messaging. And I don’t think for them, it’s all about every quarter having to be higher and higher and higher, they’re willing to take some of the financial hit and look at this as more of a long term solution. I think one of the things that a lot of brands face is this constant financial reporting that they need to do and it’s whatever we need to do to get those numbers up, that’s what we’re going to have to do and sometimes that overshadows absolutely everything else. And when I look at Patagonia, the brand and I look at how established they are into environmental issues, they’re really built around humanity and environment and adventure. And it’s such an integral part of their brand that it feels on brand for them in order to do this. But I would imagine that there had to be some financial decisions made to allow for this to happen.
Sasha Codrington: 14:14
And I think that’s what Christian was getting at where we’re seeing consumers are tired of those empty claims, they are looking into it a bit more. So for companies that are coming up now, I think that’s what people are expecting is that they are actually building environmental considerations into their brand from the start, because at this point, we don’t really have another choice. That’s what consumers are expecting. They’re looking for those messages as they’re looking for the depths that Patagonia has put into it.
Brad Breininger: 14:39
Right. But don’t you think that there’s a group of consumers that have that awareness, but don’t you think there’s another group of consumers that are just trying to get by they’re looking for the lowest price, they’re not necessarily reading as much into it. Some would say that it shows a lot of privilege to be able to choose to shop with Patagonia because here’s the other thing that Patagonia jacket doesn’t cost 39.99. And for a lot of people Patagonia is out of reach if they’re trying to put coats on three or four kids that are growing like weeds. There’s this idea that we as consumers have the power and we do, but there’s a whole group of consumers that are going to buy whatever is the cheapest. Look at Amazon, look at how powerful Amazon is, is sustainability and environment and everything the most important thing on Amazon’s agenda? No, it’s low price and speed to get even more consumer products, right? How do we bypass that? How do we help these brands that don’t charge what Patagonia does, don’t have the financial capability to make some of those decisions? What do we do for those consumers who really do need just the lowest price?
Marko Zonta: 15:48
it just really comes down to the consumer. To your point, Brad, some consumers simply won’t care, either because they can’t, or they choose not to, they will go ahead and purchase whatever is the cheapest or fastest or whatever it may be. And then there is probably at this point, a fairly small percentage of people that are very aware, and they actually make it a priority in their life to change their behavior. And that will over time drive what some brands do for as long as the market is there to actually just buy whatever sounds great, greenwashing will continue, because it is a huge marketing opportunity.
Brad Breininger: 16:27
A good example, I think is Canada Goose, the Canada Goose jackets. So there’s been a lot of pressure from consumers, for them to start to remove the coyote fur from the hoods of those jackets, they’re now looking at a plan to phase that out over time and get rid of that coyote fur. But what about all the down that goes into those jackets, they don’t seem to be talking about that piece of it. So it’s almost like, okay, we heard about the coyote fur, and we’re gonna get rid of that, but the jackets will continue to be down. And for a lot of people, the down is warm, and that’s what they want. And they don’t care that it’s not a non animal based solution. But for a whole bunch of other consumers, that is a factor. Is Canada Goose using the coyote for to push the brand forward without addressing some of the other sustainability and environmental issues that they’re putting out into the universe.
Marko Zonta: 17:19
That’s a really good point, a lot of brands are doing a small part, right, a really small change, and making it into this amazing marketing opportunity. And in some cases, even worse, where they are actually making a change to benefit their bottom line. But then they actually package that as an environmental concern. They’re doing that purely for profit, but then they’re also using it as a marketing opportunity to kind of – like the worst example of that.
Brad Breininger: 17:47
Because they have to sell right at the end of the day, if they don’t sell and if they don’t make money, then they cease to exist, it’s almost a fight for their life. Right?
Marko Zonta: 17:55
To Sasha’s point earlier, if environmental issues or concerns are not built into your business plan, it’s just not going to work. Because the reality is that if you want to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, it will cost more on all levels. When it comes to production to materials, everything, it will cost more, you really have to change your business plan and your outlook to accommodate all of that.
Brad Breininger: 18:21
And that’s great. But that single mom who is renting an apartment where 40 or 50% of her salary is going to just pay the rent and food. She’s not buying a $280 $300 Patagonia jacket for her kids. She’s just not, she can’t. So I
Marko Zonta: 18:37
For me, the worst part of it is the fact that think that there’s always going to be this pressure from both companies can actually make false claims and they get away sides. And for people who can’t pay extra or who can’t afford with it. And again, when I read that statistic that 98% are what it actually costs to be in this direction, It’s going to be false, it blew me away. That’s just incredible. Where are all a tough thing. those agencies that is supposed to monitor that and is s pposed to shut stuff like that d wn.
Brad Breininger: 18:59
But don’t you think the whole profession I mean, it’s a profession that worked in the middle. We’re talking about greenwashing here, we’re talking about making false claims. But if you look at marketing, marketing is all about the best of everything. The people who use dove don’t all look like the people in those dove commercials except for in recent years when they’ve really made a concerted effort to show the wide range of people, or even something as simple as your favorite burger joint. You see the commercial with the burger and then you open the little box and your burger looks absolutely nothing like what the burger looked like in that commercial. I almost feel like white washing and now greenwashing, it’s almost like it’s part of the culture of marketing a little bit. What do you guys think?
Marko Zonta: 19:57
It’s absolutely a part of the culture. It’s part of of our daily life, you cannot turn on the TV or drive on the road or whatever without being bombarded with those false messages on all levels, right? You just have to assume that that’s false. And yes, you got information that you needed. But now you have to do your own research. And you have to make your own decision.
Brad Breininger: 20:18
Yeah. And here’s the problem. I think such a large percentage of consumers don’t have the inclination, nor the time, nor the desire to do all that work. They want to walk into a store, find a low price jacket and buy it. However, I think to your point earlier, Christian, I think a lot more people are saying no, I’m gonna put my money where my ethics are or where my heart is. But I’m just not sure that that has translated to the masses yet.
Marko Zonta: 20:46
It’s so interesting. I mean, this is not necessarily a greenwashing example, but milk products, “our milk comes from happy cows”, how do you determine what makes the cow happy
Brad Breininger: 20:58
Because they’re smiling in the commercial Marko, haven’t you watched television, the cows are always smiling
Marko Zonta: 21:03
Right? And the problem is, is marketing. People want to feel good about it, they want to feel happy about making that purchase, whatever that is,
Brad Breininger: 21:11
I also think they don’t want to feel guilty. Like if they can say to their kid, oh, by the way, your milk is coming from happy cows, because I saw it on TV.
Christian Rosenthal | ZYNC: 21:20
Don’t you think that the more we get closer to 2030. And I say 2030, because of the UN’s sustainability goals that they are pushing and pushing and pushing, don’t you think that as we get closer to that date, people will keep being more aware of the sustainability goals, and maybe demand brands to start thinking about those. And to your point, Brad, maybe integrating sustainability policies to their values.
Brad Breininger: 21:51
It’s exactly what Marko said it has to be legislated in order to drive it, probably the biggest issue that we have against what the UN is trying to do or what other organizations are trying to do is that while they’re all trying to take us into the positive, lobby groups are probably some of the most powerful and well funded groups in the world. And they’re trying to go the other way. If you look at fossil fuel lobbying, if you look at milk board lobbying, if you look at even for a long time, the tobacco industry lobbying, I mean, it finally got to a point where people were just like, we just can’t believe this anymore. However, I will point out that cigarettes are still for sale in every corner store. So yes, we’ve put the rotting teeth and put them behind closed shelving. But it’s not like they don’t exist anymore. But how long did it take for the tobacco industry to be pushed down. The amount of time and money. Now, if you take that out across every other industry, there’s always people who do believe in certain things. And then there’s other people who don’t. So there are people who don’t want animals to be harmed in producing food for us or milk for us. But then there’s other people who just don’t care. That is a problem, right? It’s one thing if they don’t care, it’s another thing if they fund lobbyists who push for it to go the other way, that’s part of the problem that we’re facing. And part of the problem that these brands have is that they then have to exist in a marketplace where this is all happening. So I’m not sure that there is a solution, an easy solution, definitely not going to solve it on this podcast. But the reality is, we have to start having more and more of these conversations, we have to start pushing into this direction. We have to have brands like Patagonia who are willing to put their money where their mouth is and start to move the needle in the opposite direction. Because if we don’t whether we agree or disagree on animal welfare, or eating meat or not eating meat or sustainable farming, whether or not we agree on those things. The truth is there’s global warming happening. The oceans are rising, the ice is melting. The fires are burning this summer is one of the worst summers, there are some things that it doesn’t matter whether we agree or not. The environment is telling us there is a problem here. What about the ocean of plastic? Are we still talking about that? Or is everyone forgotten about that? Anyway, there’s a lot going on.
Marko Zonta: 24:16
This is such a big subject that perhaps we’ll do another podcast on this. He just kind of preparing for this I came across this statistic. And it’s actually by the National footprint and biocapacity accounts 2021 edition, they actually created this infographic that basically shows based on how the population within a country lives and consumes how soon within the year the resources would be used up that are available to us. That comes to resources, pollution, everything calculated all together, Canada and the United States would run out of resources by March 14. So that is how much we’re consuming or polluting in terms of what is actually available, and what the planet is actually able to support. So now what do you do for the rest of the year?
Brad Breininger: 25:08
And that’s just two countries. That’s not even the rest of the world.
Marko Zonta: 25:10
Yeah. So they actually, infographic they do it country by country. And since we live in Canada, by March 14, we run out of everything that we need to sustain life.
Brad Breininger: 25:20
The bottom line here is that we asked the question at the beginning are companies greenwashing? Absolutely, they are. Are they doing it because they’re terrible companies or terrible brands? I don’t think so, I think they’re doing it because consumerism pushes organizations to exist and to make money and to make profit. And I think that they’re looking for the best way, are they doing it with ill intent, I think some brands maybe are doing it with ill intent, to kind of pull one over. I think other brands are looking at very difficult to solve situations and trying to come up with solutions. But they don’t necessarily make that big of a difference. And that’s apparent in some of the things that we’ve talked about earlier in the podcast. But I think the bottom line here is that at the end of everything, greenwashing is something that is going to force us not to look at the situation in as serious a way as we probably need to. And I think that it doesn’t serve us well. So for those organizations, or those people who can use their dollars in a way to incite change, we need to hope that those people do that. For those people where price and speed are the most important thing, I still think there’s an opportunity for them to be educated on the brands that they’re buying and understanding what’s going on in the world, it really comes down to the only power we have is how we spend our money. That is the only power that we have in this process. So if we are spending it in a way that aligns to our own values and our own ethics, it will force organizations to really look at what they’re doing in a bit of a different way. And there are more and more brands popping up that are being held accountable and holding themselves accountable. And for those who can do it, they need to really push for those brands and make sure that we’re getting to a place where we want. Are we going to solve it on this podcast? No. Are we going to solve it in the next year? Probably not. It’s going to be a combination of things. And hopefully the tide will turn the way it did with the tobacco industry into the environment and into some of the issues that we’re having in all of these different industries. We’re already starting to see it with fossil fuel more and more. I don’t think we’re where we were with the tobacco industry. But it’s starting to happen a little bit more and more. All we can do is start to have these discussions and continue to have these discussions in order to incite change. And in order to hopefully not make marketing sometimes feel as under the table as it sometimes comes across. So that’s this week’s version of everything is brand. Join us next week and we will definitely be talking more about the sustainability topic but until then, remember, everything is brand.