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Companies face pressure to promote sustainable products, avoid 'green washing'

Companies face pressure to promote sustainable products, avoid 'green washing'
© Win McNamee/Getty Images

From introducing recycled packaging to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, companies across the globe are increasingly integrating sustainability into their business models and marketing campaigns as consumers demand social responsibility from corporations. 

In recent years, studies have indicated that more Americans are identifying sustainability as a central factor in consumer decisionmaking.

In a November 2020 Ipsos poll, roughly 63 percent of U.S. adults said they believed “purchasing sustainable brands or products makes a difference for our environment,” with 57 percent noting that they felt “better” when buying “sustainable brands or products.” 

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The demand for corporate responsibility has increased as more people reflect on the long-term impacts of climate change, with about two-thirds of respondents from around the world indicating in a January United Nations Development Program poll that they believe the Earth is facing a climate emergency. 

Veena Harbaugh is marketing director for B Lab, a third-party organization that provides B Corp Certifications to companies based on their level of social and environmental impact. She told The Hill that more individuals are reflecting on what role they want companies to play in addressing global crises in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

“When we look at what businesses do and what is their responsibility, a major component of that is their environmental impacts,” Harbaugh said. “And so I think that's where business very clearly has a role to play and why consumers are demanding it of them.” 

She went on to say that “sustainability fits into a picture of people wanting something better for the world,” noting a recent study from B Corps that found that consumers in the U.S. and Canada identified a range of other issues they consider when purchasing products or services, including a company’s efforts to promote food security and workers’ rights, as well as racial and gender equality. 

B Lab is aiming to put pressure on companies through its B Impact Assessment to measure how operations, from large multinational corporations to small businesses, are working to promote a positive impact both socially and environmentally. 

The companies that earn the highest points in the assessment receive a B Corp Certification, a title that has been given to nearly 4,000 businesses globally over the past 10 years. Outdoor clothing brand Patagonia and popular ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, which creates ice cream flavors based on social issues such as "Save Our Swirled" aimed at addressing climate change and "I Dough, I Dough" in support of gay marriage, have both received the certification.

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Ben & Jerry’s parent company, Unilever, has also individually promoted sustainability as part of its business model. Since 2010, the company has organized a Sustainable Living Plan aimed at reducing product waste and pollution.  

In its 2010 to 2020 summary report, Unilever indicated that it was successful in reducing waste per consumer by 34 percent in the past 10 years. 

The company, which also owns several other brands including Dove, Axe and Breyers, also reported a 10-percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, with a goal of reaching net-zero emissions in the production of its goods and services by 2039. 

"Sustainability has always been an important part of Unilever’s business model," Tom Langan, head of Unilever North America Communications, said in a statement to The Hill. 

"For years, it has been our goal to make sustainable living commonplace across the world," Langan said. "Now more than ever, we urgently need a fairer, more socially-inclusive world. A world where we all live with, rather than at the expense of, nature and the environment."

The trend to promote sustainability has also prompted companies typically associated with polluting activities, such as oil and gas corporations, to join in on the environmental efforts. 

However, while the stated contributions from these companies may be well intentioned, Greenpeace USA’s Ryan Schleeter said this could lead to “green washing,” which he defined as “when companies use advertising or PR to give off a misleading impression that their products are good for the environment.”

Greenpeace, along with fellow environmental advocacy organizations Global Witness and Earthworks, joined together last month in filing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint against multinational oil corporation Chevron alleging misleading claims in advertisements on the environmental impacts of its operations. 

The complaint references multiple recent advertisements and statements from the oil company, including that it works to “protect the environment through innovative and responsible operations” and that it is “taking action” to address climate change. 

Those statements, Schleeter argued, just “distract from [Chevron’s] role in the climate crisis."

“The reality is that less than 1 percent of its investments go towards renewable energy sources,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “Actually, over the last 10 years, Chevron has increased its production of oil and gas, all of which is fueling the climate crisis.” 

Schleeter said that another important aspect of the complaint is Chevron’s social media posts in support of communities of color and the Black Lives Matter movement, all while Black Americans and other minorities are disproportionately exposed to fossil fuel pollution, which can cause a variety of health issues such as asthma.

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"We don't see higher rates of asthma in Black communities because of genetics or because of circumstances; it's because they're exposed to pollution over decades, from companies like Chevron," he told The Hill. 

Chevron, however, has pushed back on the FTC complaint, writing in a statement to The Hill that the claims against it are “frivolous.” 

“We engage in honest conversations about the energy transition,” Chevron said. “We believe the future of energy is lower carbon and are working to help the world achieve that goal."

“We are taking action to reduce the carbon intensity of our operations and assets, increase the use of renewables and offsets in support of our business and invest in low-carbon technologies to enable commercial solutions,” the company added. 

Chevron also noted that from now through 2028, it plans to invest more than $3 billion in transitioning away from carbon-heavy production. 

For energy companies like Chevron that want to get involved in the movement toward a more sustainable future, Global Witness’s Julieta Biegner told The Hill that “a just and equitable phase out of fossil fuel production would actually show some leadership on climate.” 

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“I think also working to repair the damage they've done to the environment and to the communities surrounding their operations that have faced the brunt of the harm of their operations for decades,” is important, she added. “A substantial investment in that would be a starting place.” 

Schleeter argued that even as consumers are making more informed choices about their products and services when it comes to sustainability, long-term change can only come from systematic reform. 

“The challenges that we face in terms of ... environmental pollution, climate change — they're really big,” he said. “It's not going to be enough for consumers to change their behaviors; we also have to push for companies to change or the government to require the kind of change that companies need to make.”