The 2006 Ford Escape hybrid SUV attracted controversy over its fuel consumption © The Ford Motor Company
The 2006 Ford Escape hybrid SUV attracted controversy over its fuel consumption © The Ford Motor Company

Eight ways to avoid #greenshaming

14 November 2019

As #greenshaming becomes ever more vociferous against companies found to be insincere in their efforts to save the planet, it’s worth learning from those already bearing the battle scars of greenwashing. Here are eight lessons:

1. Leave no grey areas

Procter & Gamble claims its new formula Fairy Liquid will halve the carbon impact of washing up by allowing the chore to be completed in water heated to 27°C, rather than 47°C (the average temperature in the UK), according to the FMCG giant’s lifecycle assessment, determined by ISO standard. Yet there’s a long running debate on whether dishes should be washed by hand at all. Scientists at the University of Bonn believe that dishwashers are actually more eco-friendly because they use less energy, water and soap as long as you follow two simple criteria. “Run a dishwasher only when it’s full and don’t rinse your dishes before putting them in,” says John Morril, of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

2. Get the right certification

A mattress certified by the “Green Safety Shield”, would suggest that some independent body had audited it for safety and eco-friendliness. In the case of Moonlight Slumber’s mattresses, the Green Safety Shield was of its own making. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on the company for this deception – and for falsely marketing its products as organic.

3. Be clear on claims

In 2012, the label on Unilever’s Vim Power Pro bathroom cleaner assured consumers that it featured “98% natural ingredients”. When Canadian TV show Marketplace tested Vim Power Pro, it found that, like most cleaning products, it consisted mainly of water. When water was eliminated, petroleum-based chemicals accounted for one quarter of the product. When asked to clarify the matter, Unilever replied: “Our naturally derived claim is based on all ingredients in the product – including water.”

4. Elephants don’t wear green

Strangely specific statistical claims were made in a promotional flyer in 2010 when Reynolds American proudly declared it had saved: 280,000 paper hand towels by installing hand dryers; 30,000 paper cups by using ceramic mugs and 312 barrels of oil with its sales team’s hybrid car fleet. Even being 100% wind powered for two years couldn’t conceal the elephant in the room: it made cigarettes. In its rebuttal, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids pointed out that cigarette smoke spews 7,000 chemicals into the environment (including 69 that cause cancer).

5. Upgrade your message

When Microsoft launched Windows 7 in 2009, it trumpeted the software’s power-saving diagnostics and low-light setting for monitors as proof that it was paying “more than just lip service” to the environment. Such laudable initiatives were undermined by Microsoft’s marketing which assumed, as one director said, “The vast majority of people who get Windows 7 will move to new hardware.” The fact that 81% of the carbon footprint of a typical computer comes from making it, rather than running it, may explain why Windows 7 didn’t win any environmental awards.

6. Support promises with action

The Barbie BCause collection of accessories was triumphantly marketed by Mattel in 2008 as “[repurposing] excess fabric and trimmings from other Barbie fashions and products which would otherwise be discarded, offering eco-conscious girls a way to make an environmentally friendly fashion statement.” As this statement was not supported by fact, the blogger EcoChild’sPlay felt compelled to ask: “If Mattel really wants to be green why not reduce the ridiculous amount of packaging they use to display their dolls?” Mattel subsequently promised to use much more recycled material in packaging, but its 2018 annual report does not reveal if progress has been made.

7. Tell the whole truth…

“Diesel has really cleaned up its act” was the simple, uplifting slogan with which VW promoted its diesel vehicles to American consumers from 2008 to 2015. What the automotive giant had really done was equip up to 11m diesel-powered cars around the world with software that recognised testing and changed performance to falsify results. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, this enabled cars to emit nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times the regulatory limit. When the story broke, VW was top of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index. Other car makers were later found to have also gamed the regulations.

8. …and nothing but the truth

“I guess it is easy being green,” said Kermit as he bounced around a Ford Escape hybrid SUV in a TV commercial in 2006. If the Muppet had read the small print, he would have realised that when it was launched, the Escape’s fuel consumption was slightly worse than the US average. A hybrid SUV may be better for the environment than a gas-guzzling alternative but that doesn’t make it good for the environment per se, especially if (as was the case with the Escape) Ford only planned to sell 20,000. The main purpose of this lavishly advertised launch seemed to be to generate a mild green aura around Ford. Earlier this year, the automotive titan announced plans to reduce CO2 emissions with the launch of a new hybrid SUV, the Kuga.

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