I was a latecomer to the word “greenwashing” but when I found myself next to a couple of people discussing a brand of laundry capsules in an Otley supermarket I heard it twice. I couldn’t wait to get out my phone and look up the definition.
Given that I was in the aisle devoted to detergents and household cleaners I thought greenwashing was the term for using environmentally friendly soap powder. But no, it refers to the green spin that companies and politicians put on their products and policies, usually to deceive us.
The word is clearly derived from whitewashing, the familiar metaphor meaning to cover up scandals or exonerate someone after there’s been little or no investigation. Applying that to environmental issues, I suppose the piece of greenwashing that we’re subjected to the most is seen at petrol stations, where lead-free petrol is dispensed from green pumps as though the act of removing lead in the 1980s – because of its harmful effect on children’s health – had exonerated exhaust fumes from all further blame as a pollutant.
But that’s not the case. Because of vastly increased traffic, pollution from petrol engines is now far worse than when the oil companies started greenwashing us three decades ago. Yet still they hide behind the colour green, despite there being a potent cocktail of toxic gases at street level, and globally, carbon dioxide driving climate change.
The latest piece of greenwashing in relation to transport concerns the increasing shift from petrol and diesel engines to electric-powered vehicles. These have been hailed the saviours of the planet. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some motor company adopted that word for a model of electric car. The Ford Saviour anyone? That would be worthy of a greenwashing award. But the green electric vehicle does not yet exist. Earlier this year a report found that manufacturing an electric car produces 12 tonnes of carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of 15 years of electricity usage in an average UK home.
Supermarket shoppers are increasingly the target of greenwashing. I went back and had a sneaky peak at those laundry tablets being discussed in Otley and the label promised eco-friendly ingredients perfumed with lavender. This may all be true, and fish in the River Wharfe, where the effluent from local washing machines ends up, may appreciate the smell, but so many claims to green credentials have been found to be exaggerated or bogus it’s hard to tell. There needs to be an official assessment of green claims.
Most plant-based foods are wrapped up in green and white but their ingredients lists show that many contain soybeans, the production of which is blamed for huge environmental damage. Greenpeace estimates that deforestation in the Amazon, where much of the world’s soybean crop is grown, increased 55 per cent in the first four months of 2020.
In UK politics there’s no better example than the Conservative Party’s oak tree logo, which is meant to represent strength and growth. Now, though, it’s a fig leaf to cover up their non-green agenda. I wonder how many oak trees will be felled along the route of the highly destructive HS2 railway line, or how many trees of all species will be uprooted and burned on the proposed bonfire of planning regulations. This is greenwashing at its most brazen.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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