by Veronica Florendo
In the midst of the sweltering heat and smog-filled streets of Metro Manila, a wall of green stood tall amongst a forest of skyscrapers and shopping malls. There it stood—as if it had sprouted from the cracks of the concrete that suffocate the city—making a bold claim in the face of millions of suffering commuters that it would “save the planet”.
Nearly eight years have passed since Coca-Cola Philippines partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) for a promotional billboard that would absorb air pollutants along EDSA. Using 3,600 tea plants, the 60 by 60 feet billboard was completely covered, save for a blank space in the center that gave off the silhouette of a Coca-Cola bottle. Then President of Coca-Cola Philippines Guillermo Aponte stated that the country’s first plant billboard is an embodiment of their company’s ‘Live Positively’ commitment to making a positive difference in the world by incorporating sustainability into everything” they do. Yet in 2018, Coca-Cola was listed as the world’s biggest plastic polluter, based on trash accumulated in coastal clean-ups around the globe.
What then, does this say about their supposed pledge to save the earth? After all, it was only a few months after the billboard’s launch that Coca-Cola decided to roll out limited edition aluminum can designs celebrating its 100th anniversary in the Philippines, adding even more waste to the overflowing landfills of the country.
Whatever happened to their promise?
Critics call it “greenwashing”. Coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld to refer to how companies make brave claims towards environmental sustainability but continue to carry out business practices that are hardly “eco-friendly”. Aside from Coca Cola, companies like Lush Cosmetics, Chevron, and H&M have been accused of deploying the particular tactic before (even until now), in a bid to survive a global trend of environmental awareness among 21st century consumers.
Greenwashing is usually done through the use of “green aesthetics” in advertisements and, to a lesser extent, in product packaging. By playing with the creative elements that people tend to associate with the environment and incorporating this in their promotions, companies restructure their brand’s image and entice customers to avail of a greener alternative that is “one with nature”. In advertisements, companies tend to place their “green” products against a backdrop of a cosmopolitan area, much like what Fiji Water did for their Super Bowl advertisement. a clear delineation can be made, supposedly, between what is sustainable and what is not. By providing a stark contrast between a product and its generally bleak background, it plays with the minds of the consumers and forces them to as associate the product being advertised as the opposite of its landscape: a lone defender of nature in the midst of a rapidly developing society.
Companies then proceed to back this up with data to make their product seem more credible. Various labels advertising its being “natural” and “X free” are placed all over the product. Statistics are also used to bolster the legitimacy of the company’s claim, yet the difficulty of finding out the truth of their claim remains with lack of transparency from most big corporations.
But the act of greenwashing is only as strong as the message the company creates to rebrand its product. A scenic backdrop and some statistics are not enough to convince people to patronize their product. The use of catchy phrases that center around a strong call for action, usually in partnership with a credible environmental organization, is what drives the company’s new brand identity into the hearts of the consumers. These lines convince consumers that the company is actively participating in reducing its negative impact on the environment, though the messages themselves are purposefully vague.
But why is being green suddenly trendy? A basic marketing principle might just be the answer: corporations want to provide for a glaring consumer need. With rapid environmental degradation not lost to the public’s consciousness, consumers are now more willing to spend on products that are less damaging to the environment. And although it still seems like a great direction, being more environmentally friendly in the production of goods, however, might actually cost more.
It’s no secret that most companies get their materials from the cheapest sources, which may not necessarily be harvested in the most sustainable way. Child labor in India is prevalent, with at least 5,000 children procuring mica, a popular mineral used in cosmetics, for companies like L’Oreal (“Ugly Truth Behind Global Beauty Industry”). Since they can easily fit in the small crevices of the mines and can be paid less as compared to their adult counterparts, some middlemen prefer outsourcing the work to children in impoverished regions, who can not turn the prospect of income down.
Companies also outsource the construction of their products to less developed countries where labor is much cheaper, importing to and from locations all over the globe. Fast fashion brand UNIQLO was heavily questioned in 2017 for the appalling working conditions of Pacific Textile Ltd employees, one of the companies in China that they outsource to produce their clothing. Workers reportedly had to work 112-134 hours a month—more than four times as the legal upper limit on overtime—to make up for their abysmally low wages (Akahata).
Both cost-cutting measures generate a larger carbon footprint, sacrificing ethical production for profit. Given these business priorities, greenwashing appears to be the perfect strategy to appease consumer guilt and encourage the continued consumption of their products in a more environmentally aware market.
Greenwashing in itself, though problematic, is not completely evil. As Orsola De Castro of Fashion Revolution states, “A greenwash could be a precursor to real change, a step in the right direction” (Slater). Some companies may actually be sincere in their thrust towards a more sustainable business model. Change is not instantaneous; realistically, it takes a lot of time and effort.
But in an economic system that operates on outsourcing labor to middlemen, demanding for accountability from big corporations is a daunting task, with corporations themselves not fully aware of the bigger picture. Concessions for more environmentally-friendly options can also come at the cost of cheaper labor or may be more detrimental to the environment in the long run if the company does not make a well-informed opinion. In the end, even the companies themselves are victims of consumerism and overproduction.
As consumers, it is our responsibility to be more aware of the products we consume and not just believe in everything advertised to us. We must demand for accountability from these companies to produce safe and environmentally sustainable products not just on paper. With the looming danger of the climate crisis, it’s high time for companies to go beyond advertising and get real work done. So the next time you see a save-the-planet ploy, remove those green-colored glasses and start asking the hard questions.
Akahata, Shimbun. “Fast fashion, small paychecks: UNIQLO’s sweatshop labor practices”. People’s World, 23 June 2017, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/fast-fashion-small-paychecks-uniqlos-sweatshop-labor-practices/.
Gabbattis, Josh. “Coca-Cola and Nestle among worst plastic polluters based on global clean-ups”. Independent, 9 Oct 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/plastic-pollution-coca-cola-nestle-pepsico-nestle-beach-clean-greenpeace-a8576276.html.
Nudd, Tim. “Coca-Cola’s Green Billboard Made of Plants That Absorb Air Pollution”. Adweek, 27 June 2011, https://www.adweek.com/creativity/coca-colas-green-billboard-made-plants-absorb-air-pollution-132966/.
Slater, Sophie. “The ‘Greenwashing’ Hiding the Truth of Your Favourite Fashion Brands”. Vice, 1 May 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/kzmw5a/the-greenwashing-hiding-the-truth-of-your-favourite-fashion-brands.
“Ugly Truth Behind Global Beauty Industry”. Al Jazeera, 21 Sept 2014, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/09/ugly-truth-india-global-beauty-industry-cosmetics-mica-201499101422805960.html.
“What You Didn’t Know About Fiji Water”. Mercola, 27 Oct 2009, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/10/27/What-You-Didnt-Know-About-Fiji-Water.aspx.