by Brian Davis, Staff Writer
Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought suit against Walmart for what they describe as “green claims,” or, “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is a deceptive business practice that occurs when a company misrepresents the extent their products and policies are environmentally sustainable. Walmart will pay $3 million in civil penalties for wrongfully marketing rayon-made products as eco-friendly produced bamboo products which, according to an FTC news release, is not an anomaly as Kohl’s was hit with a similar lawsuit with fines of $2.5 million for the same reasons. The combined $5.5 million from these companies is the largest-ever civil penalty over this type of product marketing.
Greenwashing is not a new practice, but as society at large has become more aware of developments like climate change and deforestation, they have demanded greater accountability from corporations. These demands have, in turn, led to an even greater increase of admissions that companies participate in greenwashing. In fact, a 2022 poll suggested that 68 percent of U.S. executives admitted their companies were guilty of greenwashing.
This problem is not a uniquely American one, either. Recently, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) fined an energy company regarding exaggerated claims they made about their electricity production being carbon-neutral, as well as their gas-to-power projects being “low emissions.” The ASIC, along with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), have been cracking down on greenwashing claims by opening up many investigations into entities, super funds, and managed funds’ green credentials. Investigations by these watchdogs usually begin online, with staff surveying the internet in search of false environmental claims. After a global investigation, the ACCC found that as many as 40% of company claims may be fraudulent and in violation of green laws.
As the next United Nations Climate Change Conference begins in Egypt, fears mount that the conference itself will be a forum for greenwashing and posturing. Over the years, these conferences have weighed a balance between global news attention and an almost circus-like string of events that lead to elevated levels of carbon emissions. The big change this year, however, is that many refuse to attend due to the inflammatory nature of current Egyptian politics.Greta Thunberg is one of these people. Recently, she signed a petition by a human rights coalition calling Egyptian authorities to open up civic space and release political prisoners. Egypt has assigned the “green” resort city of Sharm el-Sheik to be the location for this year’s conference, which has been marketed as an environmentally-conscious area.Egyptian officials have released videos on the summit’s website where its citizens drive electric cars, drink from non-plastic straws, and eat from biodegradable containers. But the reality is that these marketed “citizens” are the product of a greenwashing tactic from the Egyptian government itself. The environmentalists that they tout in their videos look eerily familiar to the political prisoners located in prisons over the Gulf of Suez and West of Cairo in Wadi Natroun.
The effects of greenwashing spread globally. These practices negatively affect consumer sentiment, who have been hyper-normalized to these behaviors. At worst, they provide a guise for alleged human rights abuses that stymie the advancement of true climate action. Limiting green posturing via penalties seems to be the only way to stop these behaviors. But how much is too much? How much is too little? Governments and companies are still unsure where to draw the line.