Greenwashing: the reality of corporate climate action


Jack Langton examines how corporations should be held to account on their plans to combat climate change.

Article Image

Image by Credit: FOTDMIKE

By Jack Langton

Updating business practice is arguably one of society’s most effective tools in waging war against the climate crisis, with corporations posing the largest threat to the environment and ecology. Market research indicates that consumers, like you and I, are attempting to be more environmentally friendly by identifying brands that share our values to give their business to. Corporations’ press releases seem to have implied that changing business practice would be best achieved through changing the way goods are produced and transported at all levels of the economy, from local to international. Recent findings indicate that while many corporations declare their commitment to net zero, they provide no indication of how this goal will be met. This may leave many of us asking: is this too good to be true?

A possible answer to this multifaceted question could come from knowledge that companies often lie to increase their profitability. This effect has become so widespread that it has been coined greenwashing. To illustrate briefly: while some companies may act green, they’re not. Owing to their misrepresentation, they maintain face with consumers and investors interested in aiding the transition to greener lifestyles.

Companies such as Nestlé, having a history of controversial business practices, have illustrated how greenwashing works in practice. The chocolate manufacturer announced its desire to use reusable or recyclable packaging for goods, which was unsurprising and brought the company under intense criticism by charities such as GreenPeace. In a statement, GreenPeace outlined the lack of a detailed plan and timeline for implementing changes, highlighting Nestle's “desire to not actually move the needle toward the reduction of single-use plastics in a meaningful way”. They also indicated that the company sets an "incredibly low standard as the largest food and beverage company in the world” for other companies to follow, as it still remains amongst the top polluters with respect to discarded plastic in 2021, according to organisation, Break Free From Plastic.

Is it too unrealistic to expect companies such as Nestlé to change with such immediate effect? With ESG and SRI considerations becoming more important, increasingly as young investors enter the market, this question is central. The more awareness about the climate impact spreads and is taken seriously, the greater the push for companies to actually change their business practices, or to at least refrain from blatantly lying to the public. Notwithstanding the high likelihood that through deception, the companies will generate revenue that could otherwise have been directed to actually address the climate issues they pledged to tackle.

Furthermore, it is apparent that governments have generally not been particularly proactive in initiating appropriate or more drastic change, either through outlining a climate plan that is legislatively binding or by outlawing unethical business practice. So, it falls on climate charities and other concerned individuals to drive change forward by continuously demanding that more of an effort should be made. Individuals, such as us, have taken to using our own social metrics to determine which ESG concern is set to be the most pressing, so that we might create demand for change in relevant areas.

For this reason, I will refer to the UK government’s recent decision to unban fracking, which has been banned since 2019. This concerning practice is known to increase the likelihood of earthquakes, among other things. The rationale behind this decision is that it should drive down the price of gas for UK citizens, whilst increasing our energy security. Much like other instances of greenwashing, misleading claims made by our current Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the impacts of fracking may be detrimental to instituting and fostering meaningful change. The basis of greenwashed claims about fracking are potentially misguided, as the impact of lifting the ban on gas prices is not as clear as it has been made out to be. Therefore, they should be a much greater point for public concern on matters of safety.

On a final note, though it seems that different facets of the ESG dilemma are progressing at varying rates in response to the climate threat, there exists a more general consistency in a broader sense. Change is achievable and should be made more apparent through individuals communicating their priorities around what we want to see change. This might be most readily achieved through educating ourselves and by intuiting when facts have been presented in a misleading way by parties seeking to gain something. Furthermore, we should aim to hold corporations publicly accountable if they are not playing their part by continuing to act actively outside of the interest of the public and the environment.