Can you spot the greenwashing on your doorstep?

Dodgy environmental claims are rife not only internationally, but locally too. But the best tool for fighting greenwashing is also close to home: human judgment

Bounded by tree-lined lanes and open, green fields stands a massive grey cube with towering chimneys. Plumes of smoke emerge from the stacks before vanishing against the sky. This is the Beddington Energy Recovery Facility (ERF), run by waste management company, Viridor, and it generates energy from waste collected, in part, from the borough of Croydon. It appears to be an ideal solution to keeping rubbish out of landfills.

The Beddington ERF claims it is safe. But is this true, or is it greenwashing? How can concerned local residents spot the difference?

Greenwashing is a phenomenon that pervades almost all aspects of our lives. As citizens and consumers come to expect sustainable goods and services, the sociopolitical pressure to deliver things sustainably is on the rise.

Dr Janet Su, an expert in corporate greenwashing defines the practice as “instances where [organisations] make misleading claims about their products and operations in order to convince others that they are more environmentally friendly than in reality,” and it’s a problem that’s happening on an international scale.

This can be seen in cases such as Volkswagen’s 2015 Dieselgate scandal, an instance where producers lulled consumers into their confidence with deceiving claims surrounding the cars’ US market diesel emissions. According to Su, who specialises in this type of fraud: “A lot of consumers felt fooled.”

Greenwashing is not, however, limited to global corporations. The Beddington ERF exceeded its strict emissions limits in December 2023, according to its own report. However, according to the Environment Agency, the permit for the incinerator was granted with these parameters to “ensure that significant pollution of the environment is prevented and a high level of protection for the environment is secured.” And yet, while knowingly exceeding these limits Viridor still trumpets its green “ambitions” on its website and states that “The facility provides […] a safe […] alternative to landfill”. This is nowhere near the scale of Dieselgate, of course, but potentially misleading nonetheless.

In response to ELL’s claims, a spokesperson for Viridor confirmed: “Recovering energy from waste (such as at the ERF) is recognised within the UK Government’s waste hierarchy as a more environmentally sustainable and better option for residual waste when compared to landfill. Viridor works with its partners to promote the recycling and reduction of waste but recognises there is still material that is thrown away. The ERF has enabled Viridor to divert non-recyclable waste produced by c. 1m Londoners away from landfill, transforming it into enough energy to power c. 60,000 homes.

“The Environmental Permit issued by the Environment Agency stipulates stringent operating conditions for the ERF. The facility is designed to respond quickly to the emissions from the varying waste streams to maintain them below permitted levels. Should the facility exceed permitted levels this is communicated to the Environment Agency in line the permit requirements and a detailed investigation is carried out to prevent a reoccurrence.”

In Hackney, Councillor Alastair Binnie-Lubbock told the Hackney Citizen that London’s biggest half marathon event, the Hackney Half, was guilty of greenwashing because they used the airline Wizz Air as a sponsor last year; the organisers, LimeLight Sports Club, had said that it “place[s] sustainability at the heart of the events”. For the Hackney residents living under major flight paths, the support of the aviation industry was an example of a company putting commercial partnerships above their climate commitments. However, spokespeople for both Wizz Air and LimeLight Sports responded by pointing out that the airline has “sustainability credentials” and the “lowest Co2 emissions per passenger kilometre in Europe”.

In Su’s view, the problem is greenwashing is built into the culture of organisations, and greenwashing done once begins a slippery slope. “It creates this environment where, in order to succeed and thrive, you have to cheat,” she says. Councils are keen to meet the demands from environmentally-conscious constituencies and companies work to sell consumers supposedly sustainable products, but there is a fine line between greenwashing, genuine action and environmental guidance laid out in the law. 

To achieve this public support, some companies have even started leveraging new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, which make greenwashing activities even harder to report. For example, a recent article in the Financial Times describes how companies using AI in advertising have been found deploying “unverified climate buzzwords” in much of its output. These can lead to misleading climate claims that have not been checked at the source. 

To guard against these practices, the Advertising Standards Authority is also harnessing AI, using it to detect false green claims in marketing. Yet, while Su believes “AI is a great tool,” she maintains it’s important to “use your own judgement,” too.

All too often greenwashing “confuses people,” says Clare Taylor, the Chair of Sustainable Hackney. That means that people have to be on guard to avoid making the wrong choices. “Ultimately, it’s the environment that suffers,” she says, before cautioning: “[Without] protecting our planet we have no lives and livelihoods.”  

In the face of so much misinformation, here is our guide to debunking and taking action against false green claims. 

Look at the language 

Corporate-speak and vague language are the currency of the greenwashing realm. The less specific the language is, the harder it is to assess the claims being made and the more likely it is that companies are greenwashing. 

“Anybody who makes a broad claim about being sustainable or making significant impacts across a broad range of indicators is almost certainly greenwashing to some extent,” says Sam Baker, an expert in sustainability who works with Climate Action Croydon and Trees4Croydon. 

Supporting this view, Su warns you should also be alert to instances where companies describe themselves in a biased way. “Are they only using positive language or are they only discussing positive actions that they’re taking and not so much talking about negatives? Do they talk about their missed goals or not? Because usually, we want a firm that is transparent and presenting both the good and the bad. So even if they were not able to meet their objectives, we want to know about it.”  

For Baker, the context of the language is essential. He advises that we ask: “What is the claim, who does it pertain to and is it clear?” This is because vague or overly complex language is often confusing and misleading.  

To combat this, Baker suggests that when we look at the language, we must also look at who is making the claim and what kind of business they are operating. For instance, a commercial incinerator, like Beddington ERF, which earns money by burning rubbish for power, might offer cause for further investigation.   

Do your research 

According to Su, greenwashing happens at two levels – product and company.  The product level is the one we’re most likely to encounter in our daily lives. However, the company level may be the best place to start when determining whether a company is engaged in greenwashing. 

Su says: “[When companies] talk about themselves, it’s often through their financial records or through their own corporate communications.” So, looking for publicly available financial statements and their corporate communications provides an opportunity to look behind the curtain and pick up on any statements which seem unlikely.  

This is something that Su encourages her students to do. For example, comparing a corporate report from one year to the next. “You could see that last year they had this goal of reducing emissions by 20 per cent,” she says. “But this year the goal is not mentioned or it’s changed. And then there you can identify indicators or something fishy going on.”  

It’s an activity that can also be done with local government reports such as Croydon Council’s Citizen’s Assembly report on the climate crisis, where requests can be made for a response on what follow-through there has been to implement recommendations. The main point is to follow your curiosity and always try to think about what you consume critically.  

Boycott the brand 

“I think the most important thing is that, as a consumer, if we know firms are greenwashing, we have the power to just not buy the products,” says Su, though she also acknowledges the limitations faced by individuals.  

“As a consumer, we can only do so much – it’s really at the government level where they have to be stricter.” Consumers can intervene at a local level by engaging with their local councils. This may take the form of attending council meetings or writing to MPs on the topic of the environment. In these spaces requests could be made to remove brands that have been shown to be greenwashing from council-owned procurement contracts. Alternative local businesses could be suggested in their place to encourage more transparent supply chains.  

While brand-switching is a powerful tool, reducing consumption in the first place is an essential first step. Baker points out that plenty of products might be “ethically produced”, but too often in the global north we over-consume and it’s best to balance our needs with our wants to achieve meaningful sustainability.  

Amplify your discontent 

In addition to boycotting brands and companies which are greenwashing, it’s important to let other people know about your discontent. Here, Su advocates for “spreading the message”. 

To do this, consumers can take advantage of the power of social media to call out companies that make false or misleading claims about their products or operations. Alternatively, they can report misleading claims to the Competition and Markets Authority or take the case to the Advertising Standards Authority.  

Additionally, individuals can join climate organisations such as Friends of the Earth’s Climate Action groups which operate in Lewisham and Croydon, or the Hackney and Tower Hamlets Friends of the Earth group. Joining these organisations is an effective way to ensure that greenwashing you notice is brought into a wider conversation so that, together, we can work to make environmental claims honest and transparent.

Want to learn more about local responses to the climate crisis? See the rest of the Climate Refresh series here.

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