Less Greenwashing, More Action!

Albin Wagener
7 min readJan 15, 2021

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For many years, the term ‘greenwashing’ has been used by politicians, activists an scholars alike to comment the way private and public actors foster the design of ‘green discourse’, while removing actual actions-or at least the much needed ambitious one that could prevent us from the dooming outcomes of global warming. Or help us adapt, at least, to the drastic changes that are moving toward us. Laws and bills have been voted in many democracies in order to encourage businesses to ‘get greener’ in termes of means of production, energy, recycling or financial investments. Green stategies have been adopted by boards, for good or cynical reasons, depending on the people leading the change: and depending on the sector, it is not always easy to do the right thing without strong and structural efforts.

Pro tip: a simple change of color is not enough.

Green advertising is not enough and does not necessarily help businesses to gain more customers, for instance. Indeed, according to various scientific studies, the greener a company gets in terms of advertisement, the less it seems to convince its potential customers (Breduillieard 2013 ; Nyilasi, Gangadharbatla & Paladino 2014). According to a research led by Nyilasi, Gangadharbatla and Paladino and published in the Journal of Business Ethics a few years ago, customers seem to be quite mistrustful when confronted with ads that sell them the benefits of a product that does not harm the environment-especially when it comes from a brand that did not care about it a few years ago. The reason for it is simple: the gap between discourse and action. Communication itself seems to be perceived as a suspicious process when linked to environmental topics (Libaert 2010; Libaert 2012).

French sugar company Daddy reminds us that sugar is… a plant.

In France for instance, different brands have started to ‘green up’ their game. McDonald’s logo has traded its traditional red for a reassuring dark green a few years ago, and even the sugar industry, renowned for its use of bee-killing pesticides, has chosen a new communication campaign. The aim is simple: to remind the customer that sugar comes from a plant, that it is therefore natural and good for people, and that it should be seen and understood as such. But fortunately, lies are not enough and nobody can be that stupid to believe this. And yes, greenwashing can be as gross as this, by playing with ‘natural’ colors such as green and the famous light brown that remind us of both wood and kraft paper bags. Again, greenwashing is always detected by citizens when sudden greening occurs in public advertisement (De Jong, Harkink & Barth 2018).

From fast food to organic delicacies real quick.

Well yeah, pollution is still pollution, however green it might sound or look. According to a study le by Delmas and Cuerel Burbano and published in California Management Review, greenwashing is immediately perceived by customers when a significant gap exists between a) the effective actions of the company, b) its corporate communication and c) the lack of legal obligations (Delmas & Cuerel Burbano 2011). To cut a long story short: yes, we see it when you try to trick us into believing that you have now become the most ambitious and valiant knight of ecology, because the contextual selection constraint you try to submit us to does not work (Maillat 2013). I cannot believe what is obviously unbelievable, especially when a lot of media heavily criticize the action of climate activists such as Greta Thunberg (Wagener 2020) or when discourses are so distant from the necessary actions we should all commit too, however drastic they might sound. And when it comes to the very power of money: even stakeholders are not convinced or impressed by corporate greenwashing (Torelli, Balluchi & Lazzini 2020).

French president Emmanuel Macron, trying to look like (and only look like) Greta Thunberg.

Sometimes, politicians even try to invent new forms of greenwashing. On december 14th 2020 for instance, French president Emmanuel Macron has created constitutional greenwashing, by trying to propose a referendum in order to write the importance of climate actions within the French constitution. Symbols are hardly enough-even if you organize events, world summits, democratic conventions and other happenings that all appear as ways to avoid tackling the real issues. Again, discourse is not enough in the age of greenwashing (Athanasiou 1996) and cognitive manipulation (Hart 2013): ecology, in the political sense, is often used as a sheer argument in a desperate attempt to win vote and temporarily appease those who think that it is THE major problem of our century. Changing your communication and the image of your company or your country is not enough (Majoney et. al. 2013); neither is the shy distillation of timorous actions that have nothing to do with ambitious discourse (Seele & Gatti 2015). Green legitimacy has nothing to do with talking about climate change or the importance of ecology. When you are in position of acting, acting still is more important tan talking. Well, talking is easier-but dramatically insufficient.

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Albin Wagener

Research, Discourse, Communication, University, Compulsive creations, Digital changes, Environmental emergencies, Music and more.