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Want to avoid greenwashing? Be clear about what it means

Companies need shared definitions of this and related terms.

Arm raising a green smoke flare

At the 2021 Global Climate Strike, an arm raises a green smoke flare as part of a performance against greenwashing policies. Image via Shutterstock/Carolina Jaramillo

The term "greenwashing" has come a long way since it was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the 1980s.

Initially, greenwashing was relegated to a small number of corporate claims — that a product or packaging claimed by the company to be compostable or recyclable wasn't, for example.

"More recently it’s become sort of an all purpose word levied by just about anybody on just about anything," said Joel Makower, GreenBiz Group chairman and cofounder during VERGE Net Zero.

"Particularly I notice this in younger generations — that anything that a company does is greenwash just because they’re a big company," Makower added. Now more definitions of greenwashing are cropping up, in Europe in particular. These definitions, coupled with new anti-greenwashing laws, are meant to help suss out bad actors.

Experts decided to weigh in, sharing their own definitions.

Professor and director of the Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan, Volker Sick’s definition? "Painting a picture of one’s products and services to get an advantage in a business sense that really doesn’t have a justification. You cannot back it." And here’s Makower’s: "Fraudulent misrepresentation of a company’s products, policies or performance."

When it comes to net-zero claims, in which a company’s greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere are balanced by removal out of them, there is a lot of concern about greenwashing.

There’s a difference between keeping the world net zero or contributing to making it negative.

"Commitments to net zero are worth zero without the plans, policies and actions to back it up. Our world cannot afford any more greenwashing, fake movers or late movers," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said recently, upon the release of the U.N. Environment Program’s Emissions Gap Report 2022. "We must close the emissions gap before climate catastrophe closes in on us all."

While companies should be trying to phase out carbon to achieve these net-zero commitments, Sick noted that life doesn't work without carbon. "There’s a reason why carbon is all around. It’s such a versatile atom to make so many things, starting from our food, our own bodies and many of the products we need." he said. "What we have to do, though, is become smarter about how we source, use, reuse and dispose of this carbon."

How companies can reach net zero carbon and avoid greenwashing

The first place companies need to start is being honest about their total impact on the planet.

For companies that claim to offer a carbon negative product, they must take into account the carbon that went into making the product as well as anticipate the product’s fate and the carbon associated with it. Examples of companies that claim to produce (or are developing) carbon negative products include Germany-based Made of Air, renewable natural gas company Brightmark and Brooks Running. And in 2020, Microsoft announced a commitment to become a carbon negative company.

Sick offered the dueling examples of concrete and fuel to illustrate the difference in carbon emissions at the end-of-life for the product. For concrete, the embedded carbon is permanently stored whereas the fuel releases CO2 when it is burned. Getting to net zero for the latter is therefore a much harder task. "[Fuel] can never ever be carbon negative," Sick said.

Long-distance air travel is also a challenging area to decarbonize. For this and other hard to abate sectors, the carbon books need to be balanced. That is, the companies that operate in these sectors, or their partners, need to draw down carbon from the atmosphere to account for the CO2 they release into the atmosphere in equal measure.

For some companies, this has looked like buying carbon offsets, which Sick noted as a complicated path. "It’s very complex and very difficult and often not [a] smart decision," he said.

Why? Short answer: Offsets should be the last resort for companies on the quest to lower their emissions and impact on the planet. And when they do use them to become carbon neutral, it can be seen as a form of greenwashing. It can be challenging to differentiate between high-quality offsets and lower-quality ones.

Our understanding of carbon negativity is not uniform.

"Words matter," Sick said, noting that there needs to be more uniformity when it comes to evaluating offsets and how they translate to a company’s carbon footprint. "Our understanding of carbon negativity is not uniform."

Additionally, education for the incoming workers in these spaces is a big opportunity to be clear about what greenwashing is and how to avoid it. "I think it’s really falling on us at all levels of education, not just at the university graduate level, to begin talking about these concepts," Sick said. "To sort of train people to think like this and value it as one of many criteria when they decide to design a product or buy something or engage in activities."

Sick expanded on the nuances of greenwashing that are misunderstood. For example, if an airline uses sustainable aviation fuel that is considered carbon neutral, the airline does not automatically become a carbon neutral company.

"You have all the ground operations and everything else. So how do you account for all of that?" he said. "It requires a very significant effort to even just document your carbon footprint and where you have levers that you can [pull]."

Other companies are using CO2 as an input material in products instead of allowing it to reach the atmosphere. LanzaTech, for example, has partnered with other companies to make everything from the chemicals needed for workout leggings to jet fuel out of CO2. And Canadian startup CleanO2, uses carbon dioxide captured from heating systems to make soap.

Are these companies carbon neutral?

Sick said companies that do this kind of work should receive credit but in addition to words mattering, context also matters. "There’s a difference between keeping the world net zero or contributing to making it negative."

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