Protect consumers against greenwashing with disclaimer

A growing group of conscious consumers is increasingly opting for sustainable products and services and is willing to pay more for this. Companies that are not established and equipped for such a positive impact tend to solve this with green or social washing. This is how it works: the company uses a costly advertising campaign to highlight a sustainable or social project so that attention is diverted from the negative impact that a company actually has. As productions come to a standstill in the corona crisis and it becomes clear how little fat is on the bones of the people who make our products or services, the PR machines of profit-driven companies are running at full speed.

For example, fast-fashion chain Primark draws attention with its #positivelyprimark campaign on social media to the support that the company offers to NHS workers by donating packages with underwear, leggings, towels and shoes. Perhaps a noble gesture, but attention should be focused on its own production chain. The company closed all stores on March 22nd, with huge consequences for their suppliers in low-wage countries.

Almost immediately a fund was set up to help factories pay workers. Initially, Primark announced that it would only pay for orders placed before March 18, but after rising pressure the company moved that date to April 17. These are large amounts, but they are still only plasters on the wounds on the other side of the world. Temporary measures that do not solve the gap that arises until the company decides to accept new orders.

If companies in the clothing industry worked according to a healthier model in which everyone in the chain receives fair compensation, these countries could create their own safety net. With all stores closed until further notice, the company now has a stockpile worth £ 2 billion in cheap textiles. We do not see images of this on Instagram.

Uber called on filmmakers in lockdown around the world to film their daily reality for the commercial Thank You For Not Riding”. Sympathetic that the company cares about quarantined filmmakers, but this diverts attention from the profession Uber is really responsible for: their drivers. A commercial to thank customers for staying at home does not help drivers who are standing still. Only those who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or are forced to remain in home isolation are financially compensated.

It is not surprising that profit-driven companies are selectively social. Completely in line with the neoliberal philosophy, they are social with whom is pulling the wallet. They cannot take good care of people in their own chain, because the entire model is built on exploiting their vulnerability. They are aimed at maximizing profit for which costs must be kept as low as possible, resulting in the exploitation of people in the chain. Survival of the fittest.

But it it is harmful to confront the conscious consumer with this truth. Companies are not allowed to lie communication, but the Advertising Code Committee will only consider a case if complaints are received. Telling the partial truth is a way of lying that often escapes surveillance. Many companies would like to translate their fine words into action, but transforming from a profit-driven organization into a company that is social by design is a costly process. Making a social impact and a profit at the same time can go hand in hand, but it does mean the end of excessive bonuses and dividend payments. It doesn’t come as a surprise that not all shareholders are ready to say goodbye to their sugar.

These companies will do everything they can to make consumers believe that their company is in line with the personal beliefs of the target group, even if it goes entirely against the core of their business. For example, dutch airline KLM asked its customers to fly less with the “fly responsibly” campaignbut the growth growth of the company was not reduced. In the campaignThe great travel hack’, Shell challenged a group of influencers to travel by car with as few CO2 emissions as possible, while the company itself is one the largest polluters in the world.

Protection against deception
Is it the public’s own responsibility to look through this? If it would be a fair battle field maybe, but consumers are powerless against the influence of expensive misleading campaigns of these companies. The government should protect us against this deception through legislation. Just as tobacco does not only have a ban on advertising, but also a mandatory warning on the product.

When consumer debt rose in 2006 in the Netherlands, the credit warning “borrowing money costs money” became mandatory in advertisements for financial products. Now there is a much bigger and more dangerous challenge on the political agenda: the climate. The solution to this problem lies partly in our own consumption behavior. In order to make choices that really contribute to the solution and not to the problem, we must be given the opportunity to be fully and correctly informed.

That is why I advocate the following: for certain sectors, such as the fossil fuel and meat- and dairy industry, there should be a total ban on advertising. In order to achieve our climate goals these industries must shrink, while advertising is used to grow and so actively counteracts the policy.

A disclaimer can be a solution for social and greenwashing practices of all other companies. If a company makes a social or sustainable claim, while it is not transparent about its own production processes, a disclaimer must be placed here that says: “Please note, this company is not transparent about possible pollution and exploitation within its own chain.”

It may not be guaranteed that we will all be able to assess whether a company makes a positive or negative impact, but it does make us collectively more aware of the incompleteness of stories that are presented to us every day.

Words by Nadine Ridder / Photo by Radek Pestka

This article was published in Dutch at 

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