End greenwashing with your social media power
How to end greenwashing through social media by holding companies accountable? Exploring the example of Rainforest Alliance and Chiquita...1 Aug 2018 5899 Views
Written by Felix Dahl
Greenwashing is a practice used by corporations to deceive you as consumer by improving their image on a false basis. It can also be defined as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service” (Prody, 2016 p. 94). However, social media and Web 2.0 provides you with the power to get informed and help expose companies participating in greenwashing.
A greenwashing example – Rainforest Alliance and Chiquita
Rainforest Alliance has been accused of tricking consumers to believe that they purchase sustainable products when they are actually not.For example, in an article in The Guardian, Chiquita is said to being accused of selling bananas certified by Rainforest Alliance while only 15 % of the bananas actually come from Rainforest Alliance certified farms in 2014 (Shemkus, 2014). The same article explains how this example of greenwashing did not lead to Rainforest Alliance revoking their certification. This even though Guatemalan water supplies are being polluted. Additionally, nitrate up to ten times higher than recommended by the World Health Organization might be used which imposes serious health risks.
Does this then mean that the Rainforest Alliance is a villain supporting corporate exploitation as a tool for greenwashing? Yes and no. It is important to see the nuances. The article Rainforest Alliance Certification of Kenyan Tea Farms: a contribution to sustainability or tokenismconcludes that even though Rainforest Alliance certifications do not necessarily guarantee more sustainability in all aspects, it does bring positive change in some respects such as the work conditions of tea farm workers (Ochieng, Hughey & Bigsby, 2013). This means that it is important for us as consumers to stay objective and rational and use our power to address the right issues. Criticizing an organization too hard on the other hand can damage it to the extent that it disappears together with the positive aspects of its work. Punishing is not always constructive and the objective should rather be to create positive change by bringing attention to relevant greenwashing issues.
Yet, it is important for us to stay informed and remember that different certifications have very different criteria (Atkinson, 2014) and that Rainforest Alliance, for example, charge a fee to certify companies and products (Rainforest-alliance.org, 2017). This means that we as consumers cannot allow ourselves to feel good about our purchases because the package has a certification on it without knowing what that particular certification stands for. Additionally, we have to remember that certifying organizations sometimes have interests of their own.
Why is greenwashing so bad?
The example of Rainforest Alliance and Chiquita is an example of when organizations and companies with partially good intensions start to cheat and get lazy. In the meantime, they keep saying that they are doing good which results in greenwashing. There are of course plenty of examples of companies, like coal mines, polluting the environment more severely but as long as they do not try to say they are good for the environment, they are not participating in greenwashing. Companies trying to deceive us is a different matter.
The earth’s population is constantly growing and we are expected to be 8.9 billion people in 2050 (Worldwatch.org, 2017). With improving living standards and increasing consumption, it is important that people make the right choices so that we can prosper as a community. As I see it, greenwashing has three very negative effects:
- Misleading consumers
- Giving consumers an excuse
- Permitting consumers to be ignorant
This means that greenwashing can actually make us think that we are buying sustainable products when we are not. Additionally, greenwashing can also give as a clean conscience when we know that we are doing something questionable but justify it by listening to greenwashing propaganda. Lastly, greenwashing can make us lazy and you might think that you are informed because you are exposed to greenwashing advertisements and PR. In reality, you are actually not because you do not find information from diverse sources but accept the most available ones.
How can you use social media to help stop greenwashing?
Web 1.0 provided companies with the power to spread information through one way communication on static websites. Web 2.0 on the other hand enables a democratization of the internet according to Kietzmann et al. (2011). This has been possible since Web 2.0 allows you as an internet user to share content and opinions both through interactive websites and social media platforms (Lyon & Montgomery, 2013). This is confirmed by Fournier and Avery (2011) who state that Web 2.0 is more about permitting users to interact in communities than to sell products. What this means is that the source of information has become more diverse on the internet. You, just as corporations, can spread information online. Therefore, when a company uses the web for greenwashing, you can access information both from that company but also from other people active on social media with particular insight. This shift in possibility to share information, has empowered you to get informed and expose greenwashing in social media.
Hennig-Thurau, Hofacker and Bloching (2013) illustrate the change brought by Web 2.0 as a pinball game instead of bowling. In the age of Web 1.0, information was passed down by companies in a one-way lane. Web 2.0 on the other hand, makes it possible for numerous stakeholders to participate in a pinball-like conversation where the importance and influence of corporations decrease. In this pinball environment, we have the chance to use word of mouth to really spread what we know and gain knowledge from each other in order to address greenwashing (Belk, 2014).
So, are we using our newly gained social media influence to end greenwashing? Maybe not to the fullest. As we can see in the image from Chiquita’s website where they inform about the Rainforest Alliance Certification, this is fairly Web 1.0. It is a static website where we as consumers cannot interact and engage. The other image on the other hand shows a good example of Web 2.0 functionalities in the sense that we are all invited to participate in a discussion. You have the possibility to ask questions to Chiquita about their sourcing practices to ensure that this is not yet another greenwashing example. The sad fact is that in over a year, only one comment was posted. This comment was not even related to the greenwashing accusations from 2014. It is time for us all to use our power and start asking questions and sharing information with each other when we see a claim like this.
What will happen to greenwashing if we call it out on social media?
Lyon and Montgomery (2013) propose six likely changes to greenwashing brought by the increasing use of social media.
- Firstly, they believe that all forms of greenwashing will become less likely because it is easy for us to see if there is another side to the story.
- Secondly, companies with an already green image will become more careful with greenwashing since they do not want to be called out. They might therefore be better off if they say nothing at all.
- Thirdly, companies with poor corporate social responsibility will communicate both what they are doing good and bad. This is to get the image of at least being honest about what they do.
- Fourthly, if a firm actually is very green they will be more likely to communicate this and use social media to do so. They will also invite us to get involved as they have nothing to hide.
- Fifthly, companies in dirty industries will stay away from social media because they have more appropriate ways to communicate. They also lack the potential of creating a positive image on social media through greenwashing.
- Finally, Lyon and Montgomery (2013) propose that, companies will use social media to market their greenest products. This final proposition means that companies will stay true on social media to avoid being called out for greenwashing. It is however important for us to stay critical and not let positive information about one green product spill over to all other products from the same brand.
By engaging and getting involved on social media, you can ask questions, make companies accountable, and spread information through online word of mouth. By doing so, companies must become more aware and make sure that they are not engaging in greenwashing. Ending greenwashing is important to enable sustainable consumption which is crucial for the survival of our planet. In the example of Rainforest Alliance, they should enforce much stricter rules for their certifications. Alternatively, they should be more honest about what their certification actually means. Otherwise, they are functioning as a greenwashing tool for Chiquita. Together we can end greenwashing, let’s hold corporations accountable!
Atkinson, L. (2014). ‘Wild west’ of eco-labels: sustainability claims are confusing consumers. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/eco-labels-sustainability-trust-corporate-government [Accessed 18 Nov. 2017].
Belk, R. (2014). You are what you can access: Sharing and collaborative consumption online. Journal of Business Research, 67(8), pp.1595-1600. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0148296313003366
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Lyon, T. and Montgomery, A. (2013). Tweetjacked: The Impact of Social Media on Corporate Greenwash. Journal of Business Ethics, 118(4), pp.747-757. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-013-1958-x
Ochieng, B., Hughey, K. and Bigsby, H. (2013). Rainforest Alliance Certification of Kenyan tea farms: a contribution to sustainability or tokenism?. Journal of Cleaner Production, 39, pp.285-293. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652612003861
Prody, J. (2016). Combating greenwashing through public critique. Communication Teacher, 30(2), pp.94-99. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17404622.2016.1139151
Rainforest-alliance.org. (2017). Forest Products Certification | Rainforest Alliance for Business. [online] Available at: https://www.rainforest-alliance.org/business/forestry/certification%20 [Accessed 22 Nov. 2017].
Shemkus, S. (2014). Better bananas: Chiquita settles lawsuit over green marketing, but the legal battle isn’t over. The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/dec/19/chiquita-lawsuit-green-marketing-bananas-water-pollution [Accessed 15 Nov. 2017].
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Students from the International Marketing and Brand Management program at Lund University are the contributing authors for the BrandBase blog.