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Greenwashing 1st act: Ecological-Social Stockholm Syndrome.

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

The front of a green car

Washing money. Washing values.

„For black money we have money laundering, for black sheep we have public relations." Erwin Koch, author of „Beim Denken abgefallen… Notizen eines gnadenlosen Federkiels“, 2006

Since series like "Narcos" or "Ozark" money laundering is a prominent topic in the Netflix or Amazon Prime world. And what happens here? Exactly! The actual origin of the money is covered up and it is washed clean.

In this way it's pretty similar with greenwashing. Here, it is not money that is laundered, but words and, as a consequence, the conscience of the buyer. A nice example from an annual spectacle:

"The same procedure as every year, James". Dinner For One belongs for many people to New Year's Eve like the Christmas tree to Christmas Eve. It's a similar story with fireworks. Critics' voices are getting louder and louder. But even after 2 years of the Corona ban, the fireworks ban demanded by many could not be enforced. But no problem! Suddenly there were - as a defiant counter voice of the critics - quite "environmentally friendly" fireworks! Less plastic, less loud and Co2-neutral. So fireworks with a better conscience.

excerpt from an aldi brochure

If one wanted to summarize greenwashing in the shortest form, it could probably best be done with the words "more appearance than reality". Because the impression created in the consumer's mind of how sustainable a product or company supposedly is often false. However, the truths, true facts and backgrounds are rather swept under the carpet.

„We are doing the really bad thing really well now.“ Kathrin Hartmann, journalist & producer of movies like „The Green Lie“

Greenwashing, then, is pure rhetoric that promises the good in order to hide the bad. Brophy Haney also offers us a fitting description in the increasingly sprawling nature of greenwashing:

"Greenwashing involves companies either misleading consumers about the green credentials of a product or service, or misleading consumers about the environmental performance of the company as a whole. Historically, big business has been able to get away with greenwashing because there has been limited understanding of what ‘green’ means, and a plethora of different definitions and certifications with little standardisation." Brophy Haney, Lecturer of Innovation and Enterprise, University of Oxford (Source).

Greenwashing has become an integral part of many companies' activities in two areas in particular (Source):

  • misleading marketing strategies and

  • inaccurate reporting.

The two often go hand in hand. However, greenwashing is most likely to occur in the first area, i.e. in marketing and advertising.

Lucky pig, for real?

In marketing, it has become quite common for a company to change the color of its product packaging or even its entire external appearance. Most of us will have noticed McDonald's "going green" with an astonished look. And when you look in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, you see it too: there it is, the happy cow in the pasture. Or the pig, which seems to enjoy the most beautiful landscape together with other animals.

Mother sow with piglet

You often find such pictures on product packaging of meat like sausage. The first impression you get is that you are buying "sensible" and "good" meat. Whatever that actually means. For a long time now, the price of these foods in particular has no longer been a reliable indicator of how much quality and care have actually gone into production and the supply chain.

Climate-neutral refueling, echt jetzt?

Recently, terms such as "climate neutral" and others have miraculously proliferated in supermarkets and other retail outlets. And meanwhile also with the refueling: You drive to Shell - and refuel there completely easily "climaticneutrally". Just pay 3 cents per liter more in your pocket and then, with a clear conscience, get on the highway. That this is not the case has long since been proven and given a "Golden Vulture" by Deutsche Umwelthilfe. And even "climate neutral" was recently declared a "non-word" (source). Nevertheless, the word has a pleasant effect on our belly feeling.

View of a Shell gas station

Among others, the NGO Client Earth deals with such and other misleading environmental statements by companies. Here is an example of what they see as a clearly deceptive campaign from the energy sector:

Greenwashing - Am I guilty?

After all, no one goes to the store and says they would like a 1-euro T-shirt produced by children. Kathrin Hartmann Source

You encounter greenwashing all the time in your everyday life. Often you probably don't fool yourself: You know that you are being led to believe something that is not true. And sometimes the greenwashing is so obvious that all we can do is drop our jaws.

But the exciting thing is: Greenwashing is anything but a new phenomenon. The term dates back to the 1980s (source), more specifically to environmentalist Jay Westerveld. Couldn't we, as enlightened consumers, have reacted long ago?

Kathrin Hartmann speaks here of an "ecological-social Stockholm syndrome" (source): We all can easily keep our high consumption level and still do something good. We WANT to believe the promises. But the headwinds are increasing.

The sustainability platform UTOPIA recommends in the meantime to look at each "advertising statement with sustainable touch first critically" and places the following orienting questions to the side of the responsible buyer, as soon as on the products and achievements of "environmentally friendly", "climaticneutrally" or "biologically" one speaks (source):

  • Is this ultimately just a red herring to sweep climate-damaging actions under the rug?

  • Does the company's business model contradict the principles of sustainability, even if individual products deviate from them?

  • Do the advertised products or measures have anything at all to do with the company's core business?

  • What does the company do to earn the most money?

  • Are there serious efforts to stop activities that are harmful to the climate?

These are plausible recommendations. The only thing needed is: Genuine commitment and the will to look behind the product and company scenes.

  • Do I want to do it?

  • Am I able to do it?

That brings us back to Kathrin Hartmann and her brilliant concept of the ecological-social Stockholm syndrome.

The way out of the fictitious green paradise must first be found. At first, it appears to be an unclear, narrow path that sometimes makes it impossible to tell whether it leads to the left or to the right - thanks to ingenious advertising strategies. But there is a way out - a very clear one, in fact. But before we go into that, let's take a closer look at these sophisticated practices ...


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