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What is greenwashing and why everyone is talking about it

Eco-friendly , sustainability , attention to the environment. These are just some of the examples of words full of meaning but at the same time “empty”: that is, they must be “filled” from time to time with commitment, method and company tools, regardless of the strategic positioning of the company. The negative pole of the attitude to care for the planet and “green” issues is expressed by another word that has come to the fore (especially) in the last period and on which there has been no shortage of jurisprudential rulings that could guide its perimeter action: the phenomenon of the so-called « greenwashing ». In pennies terms, this term is used to “unmask” what is in reality a “ ecological facade ” of a certain company, which uses a theme increasingly at the center of political discussions and of users (the “green issues”, in fact) to break through the market, thus obtaining an economic return. The effect is very simple: a company claims to have environmental issues at heart, with intentions which, however, remain only outlined on paper; and here comes the concept of “empty” and “filling” that we used at the beginning of the article. Unfortunately, these are not isolated phenomena, as some particularly discussed cases demonstrate.

The word greenwashing has a genesis of over thirty years and has its roots when environmental issues had not yet taken hold on public opinion as today. The first to use it was the American environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 to publicly complain about the bad habit of those hotel chains which, to show themselves apparently attentive to the green theme (hence “the ecological facade »), Invited their users to reduce the consumption of towels; in fact, however, this noble and rewarding commitment actually omitted choices and conveniences that were very far from having the health of the planet at heart, and of course these could only be economic . Why greenwashing ? If the reference “green” should be clear by now, the word “washing” derives instead from the term “ whitewashing “, which indicates the verb “bleach” understood, obviously in a broad sense, as hide and conceal; show, that is, something that is actually different. A deceptive practice that eludes the necessary clarity and transparency towards consumers and which, as such, requires a strong stance.

The term greenwashing has come to the fore especially in recent years, together with a general sensitivity on the issue of sustainability and the positioning of a large slice of consumers who, having green issues at heart, adjust themselves accordingly in their purchases. Thus the marketing initiatives have multiplied in which a certain company enhances its eco-friendly commitment through words that are not filled with concrete actions and therefore “empty” and deceptive. And Greta Thunberg would certainly not approve.

Over the years the word greenwashing has been associated with several cases that have established themselves in public opinion. Among the most recent (2020) we can recall the one that touched the low-cost company Ryanair, forced by Asia to withdraw an advertising spot in which it showed that it was the airline with the lowest fares and emissions recorded in Europe, citing however obsolete data updated to 2011 and based on the measurements of their own emissions and forgetting to compare those same data with many other airline companies. Another historical case of greenwashing concerns Coca-Cola Life, launched between 2013 and 2016 in Latin America and in some European countries: a drink that was proposed as low-calorie due to the presence of stevia used instead of sugar to sweeten and therefore close to the theme of well-being and health. However, the choice to use the green color label, instead of the iconic red, was unfortunate, to underline the idea of ​​sustainability and healthiness. There was no lack of controversy from those who believed that the product was actually not as healthy as it was promised, and in 2017 Coca-Cola Life was transformed into Coca-Cola Zero Calorie also with stelvia extract, thus eliminating any reference to the word “Life” .

The greenwashing was also addressed by the Italian judiciary in a case that will certainly make jurisprudence. The Court of Gorizia issued last December 2021 the first precautionary order in Italy in the matter of greenwashing in a case concerning the materials used for the interior coatings of cars. The provision starts from the consideration that today more than in the past there is a growing sensitivity towards environmental issues, to the point that the choices and ecological characteristics announced by a certain company or its product can “ influence the purchase choices “. From this premise it is necessary that the declarations that touch on green issues must be based on some essential paradigms: clarity, accuracy, truth; they must also not be misleading and must ' be based on scientific data presented to the consumer in an understandable way'. Obviously, the value or quality of the product is not in question, but the marketing choices used by the company to describe and advertise the product itself. In the order, the Court of Gorizia took the steps starting from art. 12 of the self-regulatory code of commercial communication, according to which “commercial communication that declares or evokes benefits of an environmental nature must be based on truthful, pertinent and scientifically verifiable data”.

There are some tips to recognize greenwashing , such as the lack of information or data to support what is stated in the advertisement; the generic nature of the indications, to the point of being misunderstood; data not recognized by accredited and authoritative bodies; forged certifications or environmental claims misleading reality. In general, it is always good to pay attention to the labels and check the data on the company website for the data to support its own eco-sustainability declaration.