When I first heard back after applying to work as an intern for Matcha Alternatives I was ecstatic, I had gotten an interview! But at the same time I was a little wary.
While I knew this internship would be a great opportunity, I wanted to be absolutely sure that MA truly shared my values of sustainability and fighting the climate crisis, that it wasn't only for the goal of profit.
That’s why the first question on my notepad going into the interview was “What do you mean by carbon positive and how will you get there?”
This led to a two hour (!) conversation about honesty, ethics and environmentalism, far more in-depth than I was expecting. I could tell that MA was the place for me, that they were serious about their mission and had done real research to make that dream a reality. ‘Going Green’ was far more than a marketing gimmick; it was a mission. The same was true for Anna when she applied, and together we decided to tackle the challenging, but fascinating, subject of real vs fake environmentalism in today's blog. So here goes!
A green promise is easy (and sometimes lucrative) to make, but can be difficult to keep. It may come as a surprise but some companies that make these promises have no intention of following through, they're just in it for the money. This lie is known as "greenwashing".
So let’s get into greenwashing, we’re going to discuss:
- What is Greenwashing? Its origins and why greenwashing is a bad thing
- How Can You Spot Greenwashing? Four examples to help you notice fake environmentalism in your daily life
- Greenwashing in Carbon Offsetting
- How to Spot Greenwashing + with Downloadable Checklists
- Matcha Alternatives' Approach (+ why a tea shop is talking about this!)
Welcome to the fifth piece in MA’s series Going Carbon Positive, where we discuss all things climate change and what we can all do to make change while pursuing our own goal of reaching carbon positivity.
What is Greenwashing?
First, let’s start of with a definition:
Greenwashing is the occurrence of a company using the visuals and terminology of environmental activism as a marketing gimmick while doing little (or nothing) to actually minimize their carbon footprint (1).
The term “greenwashing” was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveldin. Westerveld first used the term in a critical essay on the “save the towel” movement in hotels (1).
This movement argued for the reuse of towels and sheets for hotel guests who were staying more than one night as a means to save water. Like Westerveldin describes in his essay, this movement was centered more around appealing to customers’ morality as a way to draw more people in than it was on actual sustainability. There is probably a wet towel joke in this but the cheese factor would be overwhelming.
While we are all aware that corporate dishonesty is nothing new, the question still remains: why would companies invest so heavily in marketing themselves as sustainable? Why do companies greenwash?
For better or worse, companies have always sought to align themselves with contemporary social and political movements, from antiwar protests of the 1960s to second wave feminism in the 1980s to the current Black Lives Matter movement. It allows businesses to set themselves apart from the competition by framing themselves as modern and progressive. I mean, who’s excited for companies to make all their products rainbow for pride month this summer? I know I’m on the edge of my seat just talking about it (note sarcasm).
Amazon Float at 2017 Pride Parade. Image Sourced From Business Equality Magazine
Need a little review on all things climate and environmentalism? Read our first blog in this series:
Today, environmentalism is in! According to the 2020 Global Responsibility Report published by the media consultant company Neilsen, 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on products if they come from a sustainable brand. And that number jumps further by almost 10% in millennials (2). No wonder marketing teams around the world are scrambling to make their products seem environmentally friendly!
Why is Greenwashing So Harmful?
Ok, so what’s the point? We all know companies often “stretch the truth” when trying to sell products. that is something we are used to, so why is greenwashing so bad?
On the corporate end, greenwashing lets large corporations off the hook for the damage they cause the environment by feeding into the mindset that it’s our job, as the individual consumers, to save the climate (1).
Here’s a hypothetical: A person drives a typical gas-powered vehicle. This person cares about the environment and watches a commercial for a shiny, new electric-powered vehicle. And she then buys the new car hoping to reduce her environmental footprint.
The irony is that the resources and energy that went into building the new vehicle may outweigh the benefits of driving an electric car, especially if she replaces it AGAIN in 5 years or if she takes her new car when she could have been walking or taking public transport. In this way, advertising products as “sustainable” can encourage people to waste more.
Amazingly, many of the companies who use greenwashing in their advertisements also lobby against legislation meant to regulate corporate pollution (2).
It leads to increased waste and pollution on both our end and (on a much larger scale) on the corporate end, all touting how “eco-friendly” they are.
So in summary, companies who greenwash appeal to our morality and sympathies, while either lobbying against it and/or doing little to actually be eco-friendly and reduce their carbon footprint.
How Can You Spot Greenwashing?
Ok, so in the 80s’ when greenwashing was first discussed, it was a much easier process for companies to get away with it scot free. It was much more difficult to fact check corporate campaigns without easy access to the internet!
Today, we have far more resources at our fingertips, but while this means we have more access to answers it also means that companies are getting more sneaky.
So here we are going to outline a few major examples of greenwashing to help you figure out what to look out for, and when a company is actually doing the right thing, or just saying it:
Case 1: Greenwashing in Bottled Water
If you’ve watched TV in the last decade, you’ve probably seen an ad for bottled water. My personal favorite shows a dirty cityscape and a bottle of Fiji water, through which the viewer can see a tropical paradise. If that imagery isn’t cheesy enough for you, Fiji tops it off with a child voiceover saying “Fiji water is a gift from nature to us” and, I kid you not, an actual choir.
This incoherent mishmosh of environmental imagery is meant to illustrate the company’s dedication towards sustainability.
Fiji has advertised itself as “carbon negative” since 2008 offsetting 120% of emissions by its own estimates. Sounds great, right?
But those numbers don’t tell the full story. In 2011, a class-action suit filed on behalf of a Santa Ana woman named Desiree Worthington accused Fiji Water of using a practice known as “forward crediting.”
Essentially, “forward crediting” gives a company credit for carbon reductions that haven’t happened yet. Which, in other words, is pretty much just lying.
In addition, these calculations say nothing of the time it takes for single use plastic to decompose, 450 years according to most estimates.
The lawsuit successfully convinced Fiji to lose the “Green Drop” symbol on its advertising and to take down a company website called FIJIGreen. The rest of it? The tropical views, the child’s voice, even the choir? That all stayed.
The icing on the greenwashing cake: This is happening as 47% of Fijians don’t have access to clean water due to crumbling pipes, a lack of adequate wells, dysfunctional or flooded water treatment plants, and droughts that are expected to get worse with climate change in a country that has experienced four coups and numerous outbreaks of typhoid in the last 25 years.
Case 2: Greenwashing in Coca Cola
Here’s a question: how much water goes into making a single can of Coca-Cola and where does that water come from?
Basically, between the water in the soda, the water used to grow the ingredients, and the water used in the bottling process, at least 35 liters (though it depends on how you calculate it) per can and most of this water is coming from the global south, especially India (3).
By the mid 2000s, Coke had come under fire for using locally-sourced water for production in its Indian factories. Many of these factories were located in water-stressed communities, which are areas that do not always have enough clean water to support demand. This controversy came to a head in 2007 when US college students mounted a boycott of Coke products to get them to address these issues (3).
Almost a full decade later, Coke published a full-page ad in the New York Times boasting its efforts to save water: “For every drop we use, we give a drop back” (4).
In essence, Coke planned to offset its water usage by investing in water efficiency initiatives and expanded clean water access, much like a carbon offsetting program (4).
Here’s the problem: there aren’t enough viable initiatives to offset the full amount of water Coke actually uses.
Rather than admitting this roadblock, Coke did some funny math to make it work:
Most of the water that goes into manufacturing a bottle of soda is used to grow the sugar that sweetens the beverage. But Coke only includes a fraction of the total volume of water used on sugar plantations in their calculation of their water footprint. Their calculation leaves out the all water used on local plant life on these same plantations. According to Coke’s own initial research, that leaves out nearly 99% of its actual water footprint (4)!
In addition, some scientists have raised alarm bells on the water offsetting initiatives the company sponsors. By Coke’s own admission, these initiatives don’t actually give water back to the environment. But even when several studies proved that these projects don’t make a significant difference, Coke continued to include these methods in its offsetting calculations (and of course, marketing) (5).
All Coke polar bear images are under heavy copyright, so let's just pretend that these are cartoon polar bears holding bottles of coca-cola...while they sink on their iceberg...sigh...
And this doesn’t even begin to address the massive amount of waste created by its single use plastic bottles!
In short, between the sugar, the plastic, and the bad math, there is no way for a soda company to actually offset the damage it does to the environment. And while they do all this damage, Coke has been airing those now iconic polar bear ads, to make us all ignore what's actually happening. So maybe next time you want to pick up an ice cold coke, have a cup of tea instead!
And if you’re looking for the same kick as a can of Coke, check out our Superior Organic Moringa Powder. It's healthier, better for the environment, and will keep you filled with energy throughout the day but without any of the caffeine!
Case 3: Greenwashing in Nestle
In 2018, Nestle CEO, Mark Schneider, announced that Nestle recognized the massive negative impact of single use plastics and said it was “their ambition to do their part by using fully recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025” (6).
Almost immediately after this statement was released Greenpeace, one of the world’s leading environmental NGOs, published their own statement accusing Nestle of greenwashing.
Nestle’s original statement holds all the main red flags of greenwashing:
- Nestle provided no timeline for how they plan to enact this broad promise. This often means they have no plan of meeting their end goal (6)
- Then, in their statement, Schnieder said it “was their ambition to.” Saying “ambition”, instead of something like “goal” or “pledge”, removes accountability from the company to actually meet any of the goals they set out (7)
- Nestle did not provide any information on how they predict this would impact the world. How much plastic would this remove from the environment? (7)
- Nestle’s statement also doesn’t acknowledge their own part in the plastics pollution crisis. Just one year prior to this statement, Nestle was found to be the worst plastic polluter in a week long clean-up campaign on the beaches of the Philippines (7)
2017 Philippines Beach Cleanup. Image sourced from Daniel Muller at Greenpeace
But this was all in 2018, so you may be asking yourself, “where is Nestle now?” Well, apart from making no changes to their egregious water waste, in January of 2020, two years after their original statement, only 2% of their packaging was made of recycled materials (8). This is why time scales are important...
While Nestle pledged to invest an additional $2 billion dollars into this project the same year, there have been no updates in their campaign to “address the plastic waste crisis” (8).
Even recycled plastics end up in landfills or our oceans!!!
Case 4: Greenwashing in Lipton Tea
Lipton Tea is one of the most popular and widely distributed teas. Founded in the late 19th century, the tea company was acquired by the global conglomerate, Unilever, in 1943 (10).
In 2007, Unilever committed to the Rainforest Alliance certification on all tea production. This means that Lipton and its parent company had to begin ethically and sustainably producing teas. However, an article published this year by an international human rights lawyer, Dr. Marie Pillon, found that in order to receive the little green frog on all Lipton tea bottles, Unilever only needs to adhere to about 50% of Rainforest Alliances’ mandates (11).
So although Unilever and Lipton are regulating harmful pesticides and only sourcing from tea plantations willing to adhere to guidelines, they are far from a sustainable company.
But don’t let this hamper your love of tea! Try making your own iced teas with our “The Purist” Rare Purple Tea.
Unfortunately, using certifications is one of many ways companies get away with greenwashing. This is mainly through using false certifications from non-existent NGOs or orgs that are not actually dedicated to sustainability (12). Or in this case, Unilever was able to use loopholes in an otherwise pretty reputable certification.
A simple search can usually key you into whether these companies are using legit certifications and whether they are using them properly. For the most part, reputable NGO certifications are enough to determine how eco-friendly products are, but it never hurts to check!
And for more on environmentalism and tea check out our blog, Making Your Tea Greener
Download Your Greenwash Spotting Checklists
Now that we’ve laid out a few major examples, hopefully you have a better understanding of what greenwashing looks like, how to spot it, and how to avoid it.
So, with these examples in mind, it’s time for you to go forth and do some of your own detective work, and we’ve made a checklist of greenwashing red flags that should help you do just that:
But now that you can spot false sustainable advertising, how can you find true sustainable advertising? Not to worry, we’ve got a checklist for that as well!
Greenwashing in Carbon Offsetting
Sometimes companies try to actually take action and do the right thing - putting their money where their mouth is. One easy way to check is if they talk about what they are doing on their website in detail, rather than just a quick ad or marketing campaign. Do they talk about their values? How they are cutting down on their pollution or minimizing their carbon footprint?
One main way eco-friendly companies reduce their carbon footprint is through offsetting, as it is usually difficult to impossible for a company to mitigate 100% of their carbon output. Offsetting is the process of investing in projects that are dedicated to removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, using a range of methods, in an effort to compensate for carbon emitted.
A good way to look at this is as a credit: every dollar a company invests in offsetting, is a credit that subtracts from their net total carbon footprint. Offsetting can be a wonderful thing!
To learn more about carbon footprints in business check out Reducing Your Business’ Carbon Footprint, our 3rd blog in MA’s Going Carbon Positive series
Forest restoration sign in the Rocky Mountains.
It’s Not Always All Green When Planting Trees
One of the main forms of offsetting is planting trees to restore forests. Trees sequester tons of CO2, depending on the species, so it is one of the most effective ways to offset carbon emissions (13). It is also one of the most accessible types of offsetting, meaning even small organizations and individuals can get involved.
So, is offsetting with tree planting a free pass in solving the problem of corporate pollution? Sadly...no. Even offsetting is not free from greenwashing! And of course, offsetting is not a silver bullet, we must reduce our carbon production too.
The challenge is, offsetting needs to be done the right way, as there is a lot of nuance. Our ecosystems can be very delicate, so tree planting done poorly can actually cause more harm than good. For example, certain tree planting projects have been found to plant invasive species, which can destroy entire forests, or simply plant saplings and leave without caring for the new plants, which cancels out much of their benefit due to varying survival rates (14).
While offsetting can be a great way for a company to reduce their carbon footprint, it can also be used to end the conversation. Which means it’s important for us to keep exploring, to keep asking for more information and details. One statement or ad isn't good enough!
You can ask...Where are they planting these trees? What trees are being planted? If an organization doesn't provide this information, their offsetting may be more for the image boost than any real commitment to give back to the environment or compensate for their carbon emissions.
Learn more about offsetting + what MA is doing to offset our emissions in What are the Main Carbon Offsetting Methods?
We want to be clear at this point: offsetting isn’t the be-all-end-all solution, it is just one in many necessary factors in creating greener business models. However, it's a great start!
What About Matcha Alternatives?
Now, after reading all we have to say about companies using green messaging to sell their products, you might be wondering: why is a tea company writing about this? And how do we offset?
Here at MA, we donate to plant one tree for every tea bundle purchased. In our last carbon blog we laid out all the details of our offsetting in an effort to be as transparent as possible - we can’t exactly go around disparaging greenwashing businesses and then do the same things here! We have been planting trees in the Appalachians in the USA, and in British Columbia in Canada, working with the Arbor Day Foundation and One Tree Planted.
As to why a tea shop is writing about greenwashing and environmentalism... We want to be as transparent as possible with you about our values and core beliefs ahead of...going carbon positive Spring 2021! A very big deal for us.
So what does this mean? Carbon positive means we are going beyond reducing our net carbon emissions to zero. It means we have pledged to continue to remove carbon emissions that aren't our own.
Over the past 12 months, we have been measuring, researching and calculating our carbon footprint, from cradle to grave: tea growing, processing, transportation, packaging, even down to boiling your kettle! We sell multiple types of tea which have different environmental impacts, and we also traveled for four years to different tea producing countries to research, sample and develop this business.
We will not only be offsetting our current emissions, but also all emissions we've produced in the research and development of this tea shop. It's complicated to calculate, but we want to do it right! And share our process with you. Soon we will be restructuring our website to make it even clearer to see what we've been doing, and what we plan to do!
Lastly, we want to track our journey and research so that fellow tea shops, and fellow tea drinkers, can follow in our footsteps of mitigating and offsetting. We're doing the hard work so, hopefully, you don't have to.
To hear more about our journey & mission listen to the Quali-Tea Time podcast interview with our founders, Elizabeth and Vien!
Click here to download and print your very own greenwashing and green advertising checklists:
A Note from Lauren & Anna...
Thank you so much for reading! We hope that this piece has been more helpful to you than discouraging. We know that once you become aware of the many falsehoods that exist in corporate advertisements it becomes very easy to lose faith and give up on your efforts to buy sustainable.
But please don’t lose hope! Any places where you can change your buying habits help, even if it’s just the type of tea you buy.
And we’re just the place to do that! Our teas are all ethically sourced and we plant 1 tree for each tea bundle sold. But don’t just take our word for it, make sure to check out the last blog in the series so you have all the info on our offsetting practices!
And if this has been more motivating than discouraging we thank you! Above we have linked both of our checklists (what not to buy and what to buy) so you can download and print them for your future greenwashing investigations ;-)
Questions? Thoughts? Let me know in the comments below or on our IG @MatchaAlternatives
~ Lauren Hirth & Anna Silverstein
Three rare superfood teas with a mega-antioxidant hit: all have more antioxidants than Matcha. Every bundle sold plants one tree capturing 1 TON of carbon. Drink tea and fight climate change!
BONUS: Feel Good Music with Every Order!
Every purchase you make comes with a free download of extended songs from the Dance of Life album by Norwegian composer Peder B. Hellend.
Each thirty minute track is perfect for studying, meditation, or just ambient music for a relaxing afternoon.
References & Further Reading
Corcione, Adryan. 2020. “What is Greenwashing?” Business News Daily. Published Jan. 17. 2020. Accessed Apr. 19, 2021 https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html
Nielsen. 2020. “202 Global Responsibility Report.” Nielsen. Published 2020. Accessed Apr. 20, 2021 https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/about-us/global-responsibility-and-sustainability/
- Quraishi, Jen. 2011. “Fiji Water Sued For Greenwashing.” Mother Jones Published Jan. 7, 2011. Accessed Apr. 19, 2021. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/01/fiji-water-sued-greenwashing/
Kumar, Andrew. 2016. “Coca-Cola: Corporate Greenwashing or Genuine Change?” Technology and Operation Management. Published Nov. 4, 2016. Accessed Apr. 21, 2021. https://digital.hbs.edu/platform-rctom/submission/coca-cola-corporate-greenwashing-or-genuine-change/
MacDonald, Christine. 2018. “ Hoe Coke Spun the Public on it’s Water Use.” typeinvestigations. Published May 31, 2018. Accessed Apr. 18, 2021. https://www.typeinvestigations.org/investigation/2018/05/31/coke-spun-public-water-use
Ciafone, Amanda. “Water for Life, Not for Coca-Cola: Transnational Systems of Capital and Activism.” The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of U.S. Power, edited by Vivek Bald et al., by Vijay Prashad, NYU Press, 2013, pp. 203–228. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qfpww. 12. Accessed 23 Apr. 2021.
Bernado, Sydney. 2020. “What is Greenwashing? A Nestle Case Study” MeasureMent Social Impact Consultants. Published Jul. 22, 2020. Accessed Apr. 20, 2021 https://measurepnw.com/blog/what-is-greenwashing-a-nestl%C3%A9-case-study
Wheeler, Perry. 2018. “Nestle Misses the Mark With Statement On Tackling Its Single-Use Plastics Problem” Greenpeace. Published Apr. 18, 2018. Accessed Apr, 20 2021. https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/nestle-aiming-at-100-recyclable-or-reusable-packaging-by-2025/
Davidson, Jordan. 2020. “Nestle to Invest $2 Billion for Recycled Plastics Packaging.” EcoWatch. Published Jan. 17, 2020. Accessed Apr. 20, 2021. https://www.ecowatch.com/nestle-plastic-recycling-2644842124
NA. 2021. “Unilever” Wikipedia Updated Apr. 23, 2021. Accessed Apr. 23, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unilever
Pillon, Marie. 2021. “How Ethical is Your Rainforest Alliance Tea?” Economy. Published Feb. 5, 2021. Accessed Apr. 20, 2021. https://lacuna.org.uk/economy/how-ethical-is-your-rainforest-alliance-tea/
NA. 2020. “Greenwashing 101: How to Never Buy UNsustainably Again.” The Medium Published Jul. 21, 2020. Accessed Apr. 20, 2021. https://medium.com/climate-conscious/greenwashing-101-how-to-never-buy-unsustainably-again-6dbfc5bfd88f
Bastin, Jean-Francois et al. 2019. “The Global Tree Restoration Program.” Science, 365(6448): 76-79. July 5, 2019. Accessed March 14, 2021. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6448/76
Calma, Justine. 2020. “Planting 1 Trillion Trees Might Not Actually Be a Good Idea” The Verge Published Jan. 31, 2020. Accessed Apr. 1, 2021 https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/31/21115862/davos-1-trillion-trees-controversy-world-economic-forum-campaign tps://sarooibos.co.za/gardening-gurus-share-why-rooibos-tea-is-a-must-for-the-garden/.