A History of Greenwashing
I would like to start this course with a short story. A confession of sorts. Come with me, as I go to my local cafe. I have forgotten to bring my KeepCup again, but I see they use compostable takeaway cups, so I don’t feel so bad ordering my coffee. While I’m there, I pick up a box of beans. ‘Recycle me,’ says the packaging, in a reassuring, friendly font.
After I drink the coffee, I look around for a composting bin, since I’m lucky enough to live in one of the few countries that segregates waste in public bins. But I don’t find one, and I have a meeting to get to. I reluctantly throw the cup into landfill, even though I know that doing so negates any benefit from it being compostable, and might even make things worse.
Later on, when I finish the beans, the box goes into the paper recycling. I briefly wonder if it’s really necessary to have both a bag and a box, but reassure myself that paperboard is at least easy to recycle. The bag that was inside keeping the beans fresh is supposed to be recycled with other plastics. But a sign on the plastics bin tells me very clearly: No Soft Plastics. With no other facilities nearby, this bag also ends up in landfill, where I know it will most likely take hundreds of years to decompose.
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Making environmentally sound decisions can be extremely difficult, no matter how good the intentions. One simple transaction, like the example above, can involve hundreds of missed opportunities to reduce the environmental impact. Perhaps all of these could have easily been avoided, but if you’ve ever tried to implement environmentally conscious practices in your business, it’s likely that you’ve come up against some version of this problem. Even a seemingly simple decision like whether to turn your machine off overnight comes with some unresolved questions. At best, you hope that the changes you’ve made are actually of benefit, but how can you be sure?
This is made even worse when you consider that not everyone shares your good intentions. ‘Greenwashing’ refers to the deliberate attempt to market a business or product as more environmentally friendly than it really is.
This can include outright deception, such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal, and obvious contradictions, like major oil companies touting their environmental credentials (M.A. Cherry and J.F. Sneirson, 2012) — but also more insidious practices. Some companies may market cost-saving exercises as environmentally friendly practices, like the hotel chains that inspired the first use of the term ‘greenwashing’ in 1986, by urging guests to launder their towels less frequently. Others may take credit for their environmental projects, when in fact they are the minimum required by law (M.D.T. de Jong et al., 2019).
Such practices only compound the difficulty for businesses and consumers that genuinely want to make a difference to their ecological footprint. To fully understand the environmental impact of a product requires a full analysis of all the materials, inputs and processes involved, how the product is used, how it is disposed of, and the eventual fate of the materials in it after disposal. This is called a ‘Cradle to Grave’ life-cycle analysis, and is the main tool for establishing how environmentally sound a product really is. This tool allows us to give better answers to such questions as whether compostable cups are better for the environment than standard paper-lined cups.
In this course, we aim to guide you through how these tools work, and give you the information you need to make more environmentally responsible decisions in your own business or as a barista. We finish by presenting Professor Abbott’s framework for modelling your own coffee footprint, allowing you to take control of these decisions and work out for yourself what changes could have the biggest impact in your own business.