Updated: Nov 21, 2020
By Kristin Merrilees
“Fiji Water is a gift from nature to us, to repay our gift of leaving it completely alone. Bottled at the source. Untouched by man,” a child says in a 2015 TV commercial for Fiji Water called “Nature’s Gift.” It’s just one in a series of ads, all of which feature the silhouette of a Fiji bottle and showcase beautiful scenes of Fiji’s mountains, oceans, and greenery in sharp contrast to ones of human pollution and development.
Image via Pinterest
Graphic via Ava Jones of Voices of Gen-Z
People didn’t buy it, noticing the irony of a bottled water company claiming to care about the environment. “How stupid do you think we are? Bottled at the source but somehow not taking from nature and untouched by man?” one YouTube user commented. This isn’t the first time Fiji Water has been criticized for misleading customers about their environmental impact. In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the company for advertising as “The World’s Only CARBON NEGATIVE Bottled Water.” According to the lawsuit, the reality is that Fiji wasn’t actually carbon negative. Rather, they “employ[ed] a discredited carbon accounting method known as ‘forward crediting.’” It continues, “[Fiji Water] does not remove more carbon pollution than they create; they simply claim credit for carbon removal that may or may not take place - up to several decades in the future.”
A screenshot from Fiji Water’s “Nature’s Gift” commercial
In these instances, Fiji Water was doing what’s known as “greenwashing.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, this involves “behavior or activities that make people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” And while “Nature’s Gift” is a pretty egregious example, it isn’t always so easy to tell when a company’s being misleading about its care for the environment.
One major way that companies greenwash is by using vague labels and claims (also known as “buzzwords”) that may sound good to customers, but in reality, don’t actually mean much. According to YouTuber Sarah Hawkinson, who makes content about sustainability and ethical fashion, some terms used in greenwashing are “natural,” “plant-based,” “wellness,” “organic,” “recycled,” “sustainable,” even just “green.” Visual elements are also used - even simple ones such as the color green, unintimidating designs, and imagery of plants, animals, and natural scenery (such as in the Fiji Water commercial).
Greenwashing is especially prevalent in the fashion industry, particularly in fast fashion, with brands such as H&M and Zara. As more and more people are now becoming aware of the environmental and humanitarian casualties of fast fashion, brands are taking steps to improve their image and appear eco-friendly. For example, H&M now has a clothing line called “Conscious.” In order to be considered “Conscious” (and marked with a green tag in stores), a product must “contain at least 50% sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled polyester.” H&M has also created an entire “Sustainability” section on its website, in which it claims to be dedicated to “protect[ing] our air, water, and soil” and to “accelerat[ing the] innovation of sustainable materials.”
While these efforts may seem appealing, H&M has been extensively called out for being misleading and not actually helping the planet as much as they say they do— i.e., greenwashing. Only a small percentage of H&M’s products are actually part of its “Conscious” collection. The company also has a Garment Collection program, which encourages people to bring old clothes to H&M stores, where they will be reused to make new clothes. But past H&M sustainability reports state that only 0.7 percent of all the material it uses to make their garments is recycled material. In fact, when customers participate in the Garment Collection program, they are rewarded with a store discount—so they can buy even more clothes.
Fashion, however, isn’t the only industry that utilizes greenwashing tactics. They are also found in the hotel industry — like when hotels put invitations in your room that ask you to reuse your towels, it’s mostly to appear eco-friendly, not because this actually has that much of an impact. Greenwashing is also present in many household brands and even food products. CBC Marketplace found that many cleaning products, such as Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner and Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent, which are advertised as “non-toxic” and “biodegradable,” aren’t actually good for the environment—or for people. And in food, many appealing labels such as “organic” and “natural” aren’t strongly regulated. For example, back in 2014, Coca-Cola launched a product called Coke Life, which was in a green can. It was marketed as using “natural sugar” (stevia), but as Polly Mosendz wrote in The Atlantic, “natural sugar water is still sugar water.”
Greenwashing isn’t a new issue. In the 1980s, Bruce Watson reports in The Guardian, “oil company Chevron commissioned a series of expensive television and print ads to convince the public of its environmental bonafides. Titled People Do, the campaign showed Chevron employees protecting bears, butterflies, sea turtles and all manner of cute and cuddly animals.” There was only one problem: “while it was running the ads, it was also violating the clean air act, the clean water act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.”
However, brands today know that Gen Z, more than other generations, is extremely environmentally conscious—and they are adjusting their marketing accordingly, even if their values don’t always align. According to sustainable living blogger and YouTuber Megan McSherry, “As more and more companies are trying to target Gen Z consumers specifically, they’re starting to use more greenwashing tactics… Companies see that Gen Z [is] the next spending generation and so they want to appear good to those consumers.”
So, how can you work to combat greenwashing? The simple answer is just to stay informed and educated. Learn about the “Six Sins of Greenwashing.” Read the policies, values, and sustainability reports of the companies you are buying from.
As McSherry states, “It is so important to hold companies accountable. If you see companies making these broad, sweeping claims, like ‘We care about the environment,’ ask them what they’re doing.”
Written by writer Kristin Merrilees