Sustainability Blog

Greenwashing, Clean Squashing and Green Marketing

By Apurva Gosalia - Aug 23, 2021

The next instalment of “Once Upon a Time in Green Land.”

Having explained the proper usage of the word “green” in the phrases greenhouse gas and Green Deal, today I’ll discuss the pernicious phrase “greenwashing.”

Greenwashing is a word often used by detractors of companies trying to become climate neutral, although this step-wise process – when being conducted correctly – is exactly what is necessary for profit, planet and people right now. Therefore, becoming climate neutral in a standardized way and talking about it should be rather called “green marketing” instead.

The concept of climate neutrality stems from the Kyoto Protocol, which describes it as greenhouse gas emissions that occur in one place can be offset in another. To do this, the quantity of emissions must be calculated and cut down as far as possible. The unavoidable remainder needs to be compensated for. I called this strategic triad the “3C” approach to reach carbon neutrality and discussed it in more detail here.

The calculation of how much is emitted must be carried out according to set of well-defined standards, such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, its results analyzed in detail and opportunities for savings and avoidance must be identified.

There are several ways to cut down emissions, such as through greater energy efficiency, process optimization and switching to a renewable energy supply, or combinations of these and other methods. What’s left over must be compensated for through strictly certified climate protection projects, so that the balance of emissions is neutral.

The requirements for such recognized climate protection projects are realness, measurability, additionality, permanence, independent verification, avoidance of leakage, uniqueness, avoidance of double counting and timely retirement of the certificates in a registry. The implementation of the requirements should then be verified by an independent verification body, which then confirms the climate neutrality.

As mentioned above, some believe that climate neutrality is a vehicle for greenwashing for many companies, since they can compensate for but not completely avoid emissions. However, the same critics overlook the fact that virtually every activity leads to greenhouse gas emissions and that emission-free living is almost impossible. That is why we call it climate-neutral and not emission-free, as I have highlighted in an example below.

Investment in climate protection projects situated in developing countries of our planet’s so-called “global south” is not greenwashing but rather clean squashing for unavoidable emissions or so far not-yet avoided emissions.

Critics also say that inexpensive climate protection certificates issued by developing countries are cheap indulgence trading. But cheap does not mean bad or wrong. The price is irrelevant if good ideas and efficient climate protection measures are implemented and better conditions for people and the climate are achieved. Projects in developing countries make a valuable contribution to development aid within the framework of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainability Development Goals.

Occasionally, the advertising of climate-neutral products is described as misleading because although they have a neutral balance they are not emission-free. Here, however, it is often not the advertising that is misleading but the criticism of it. As a rule, even fruit and vegetables grown in one’s own garden do not grow emission-free. You are at the end of a supply chain that brought the seeds, fertilizers and tools by transport.

Those who criticize the lack of emission-free production give the impression that emission-free production is possible. This does not correspond to the facts. Climate neutrality is therefore an instrument of choice.

One thing is clear: Anyone who advertises climate neutrality must stick to the facts. But when properly doing so, it should not be called greenwashing but rather green marketing and we need much more of the latter. I believe that if you do something good, talk about it.

If companies are criticized across the board, there is a danger that they will withdraw from climate protection or even discourage others from taking up climate protection. This would be a disservice to the climate. Moreover, criticizing companies engaged in climate protection seems questionable as long as other companies that have not yet even started to face up to their responsibility to protect the climate remain unchallenged.


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