A recent study of over 10,000 young people across 10 countries found that more than half think humanity is doomed, while 45% say climate-related anxiety and distress is affecting their daily lives.
This large and growing group of concerned citizens want to take meaningful action to avert the climate crisis. This means changing a range of behaviours including what products they buy, what foods they eat, what job they apply for and who they vote for.
For concerned citizens to take meaningful climate action, they need accurate information on the environmental impacts of their choices.
Most consumers and voters live busy lives, and look no further than marketing materials to assess the green credentials of their energy company or political party. However these days everyone has “gone green” – or at least that’s the way it looks on the surface. Organisations make bold environmental claims, often in place of substantive green action – a misleading practice known as greenwashing. The doublespeak of high-polluting corporations was perhaps best exposed by an HSBC responsible investment executive who recently said the quiet-part loud: “Who cares if Miami is 6 metres underwater in 100 years?”.
Many environmental groups have been concerned about greenwashing for some time – one such group, Clean State, approached us to help them learn more about greenwashing.
We wanted to understand how harmful greenwashing is, and what can be done to protect consumers, so we ran an online trial.
Research on greenwashing is nascent, so we selected two interventions shown to protect people from online misinformation. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either:
- A literacy intervention – we provided information to help participants understand greenwashing and its intentions. This intervention most closely resembles existing anti-greenwashing campaigns
- A pre-bunking intervention – participants imagined they were an energy company and were asked to plan a marketing campaign with a greenwashing goal. The idea is that weakened exposure to greenwashing strategies can build resistance to future manipulation.
- A control intervention – no greenwashing intervention.
They then saw greenwashed ads we mocked up depicting fictional energy companies deploying common greenwashing strategies. One ad distracted consumers from the wider impact of the energy company, by drawing attention to a vague low impact action (“our offices are now green”).
The other greenwashed ad exaggerated individual responsibility by promoting a carbon footprint calculator. Both claims are not negative in and of themselves, rather they act as smoke-and-mirrors, distracting consumers from the wider environmental impact of an energy company’s operations. We also showed participants a non-greenwashed ad (“we’re creating thousands of jobs”).
Unfortunately, we found that greenwashing works!
Over half (57%) of consumers (in the control condition) believed that greenwashed claims were a reliable source of information about a company’s eco-practices. Consumers were also much more likely to agree that greenwashing energy companies had strong green credentials, compared to energy companies depicted in a non-greenwashed advertisement.
Note that the firms were entirely fictional, and one of the advertisements did not even make any specific claim about the firms environmental practices; it merely suggested using an online calculator to calculate a person’s carbon footprint. Nonetheless, the imagery was enough to increase perceptions of green credentials.
But our interventions worked to protect people from greenwashing
The good news is, the interventions made consumers more sceptical about greenwashing companies. Consumers who received both the literacy and prebunking interventions rated the green credentials of the fictional companies significantly lower compared to the control group. They resulted in an approximate 0.6 point shift on a 7 point scale.
Those most concerned about climate were most harmed, and most protected
Consumers who were more concerned about the environment were highly susceptible to greenwashing. Perversely, this means that the growing number of concerned consumers motivated to make a difference are the biggest victims of greenwashing. Despite intending to make greener choices, they may be selecting products or services that are much more harmful than they believe. However the silver lining is that these consumers benefited most from our interventions, making them prime targets for future greenwashing literacy and pre-bunking campaigns.
Our trial shows that consumers are vulnerable and need protection
In order to empower citizens and especially those most concerned about climate, we need to protect them from the harms of greenwashing. The greatest impact is likely to be achieved by tightening regulations of advertising standards, as the French government has recently done. French organisations accused of greenwashing could be fined up to 80% of the cost of false green campaigns.
In the absence of regulatory change, our trial demonstrates that evidence-based literacy and pre-bunking campaigns provide substantial protection from greenwashing. Organisations already doing important work in this space (see Greenpeace’s campaign to cut through the greenwashing of energy retailers) should be bolstered by this evidence. If engaged with en-masse, these interventions could re-enfranchise consumers to make more meaningful choices for the planet.
Of course, there’s lots of ways that this work could be extended – if you’re interested in talking about how we can go about tackling this challenge or thinking about how we can tackle this issue, get in touch.