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EDITORIAL: Red flags of greenwashing point to need for systematic changes

As concern for the environment grows more pressing, companies attempt to exploit consumer concern.

As companies attempt to capitalize on environmental concerns, we must be mindful of marketing strategies that might be misleading.  – Photo by Edward Howell /

In recent years, as the environmental crisis has become more pressing and less avoidable, companies have begun to claim their commitment to becoming more eco-friendly — or seemingly so. Companies proudly market that they have sustainable policies and that they care about the environment. While that level of vocal support is good, it begins to feel hollow when companies do not follow through.

Companies can proclaim one thing and then do the complete opposite. Indeed, in a process known as greenwashing, companies overstate their commitments to the environment to consumers so as to profit from the general public’s growing concern over sustainability.

In fact, a recent global review led by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network found that an astonishing 40 percent of companies mislead consumers about their sustainability practices. So many companies engaging in this type of practice crafts a culture — one based on deception. Many companies do not really care about the environment. They just want to capitalize on people's desires to be eco-friendly.

Although companies may talk about sustainability or release green initiatives, at the end of the day, they are just doing it to appeal to consumers and make a bigger profit.

This information should not come as a shock. It makes sense that as conscientious consumers, we want products that align with our values — we want to ensure our money goes places that are not harming the environment. When companies are aware of that, though, they can abuse those sympathies.

This tactic of misleading the consumer is typical of companies. Although it is now coated in environmentally friendly language, it is really the same tactic that big oil companies, such as BP and ExxonMobil, have been using to avoid scrutiny from the public.

Companies care about profit — they will do anything they can to remove blame from themselves. Fashion brands can say they are sustainable when in reality they are not. Oil companies can say that you should carpool to help the environment while they continue causing grave harm.

Misleading marketing campaigns raise serious ethical concerns that cannot be overlooked. For too long, companies have cared exclusively about their profit and how to increase revenue. It is a false dichotomy, though, to assume that companies can either only be sustainable or profitable.

Corporations should focus on the middle ground between making money and helping the environment. Of course, while we as individuals can be more mindful of where we shop, the bulk of the change must come from conglomerates.

We must always do our own research to find out if companies are actually as sustainable as they claim to be. One good way to do this is to see what sorts of statements companies are releasing and if they lay out policies that put their words into practice.

For example, the sneaker company Allbirds lays out in extensive detail the steps it is taking to combat climate change and how its products are made. The company even released a report on its efforts. We should expect this level of commitment from all companies claiming to be sustainable and hold them accountable.

Doing that level of research, though, can be hard and not everyone has the time to do it. As such, there should be better regulations in place that minimize the amount of greenwashing.

Companies should not be allowed to just market how they please. There should be some standard of truth that ensures what companies are saying matches up with their actual policies — whether through the Environmental Protection Agency or another agency, there should be a stricter regulatory process that makes it easier for consumers to know whether companies are telling the truth.

More to that point, as students, we are in a somewhat limited space. We can shop wisely and try to avoid fast fashion — but it is not always feasible, especially given the costs of sustainable clothing and other items. Instead, there must be changes to the culture around business. 

Of course, profit is important. Yet we should not accept things as they are. As we start to become the business leaders and people who run marketing campaigns, the Rutgers Business School should offer more ethics classes. There should be specific classes on ethics in marketing, for example, that teach students about running an advertising campaign in a fair and honest way.

We can begin fighting against climate change by being candid about what is happening — that must come from businesses, schools and government. 

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 154th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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