Dear Umbra,

Why do companies continue to greenwash — even after they are “caught”? The example that comes to mind is the “ugly produce” delivery service Misfit Market.

— Someone Has A Moral Enterprise, Right?


Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Ah, a classic example of greenwashing — when you’re led to believe that some product or service is much better for the Earth than it actually is! When the various startups selling “ugly” fruits and vegetables started to crop up a few years back, it seemed like a no-lose concept. The narrative went that grocery stores refuse to accept less-than-perfect specimens of peppers, tomatoes, lettuces, etc., resulting in a wilting stockpile of unwanted but perfectly edible morsels. But those rejects could be saved from the bin by diverting them CSA-style to willing homes, all the while alleviating the great environmental scourge of food waste. It was all very appealing.

Then some journalists stepped in, as journalists do, and began to explore those food waste claims. “Ugly” fruits and vegetables, as it turned out, don’t really need diverting. They already have a purpose and destination within the food system: Some are sold to restaurants, where they’re chopped up or blended into forms where it doesn’t matter what they look like whole. Others are fed to farm animals, who are not as discerning as Safeway shoppers. 

Sarah Taber, a crop scientist and farmer, called out this particular form of greenwashing in a 2019 interview with Vox:

Honestly, I think these companies just found a good hustle that makes them look good and makes money. There’s nothing morally wrong with that, but to go out and say, “I’m saving the world and I’m fixing a food problem,” when there are actually better solutions is really disingenuous. It’s just a profit-oriented solution.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Inventing a problem that is not so much of a problem is certainly a driving force behind many companies’ not-so-credible climate claims, but it’s hardly the only form of greenwashing. Consider the example of Ford Motor Company, which got into some trouble because in 2000 it promised to improve the fuel economy on their SUVs 25 percent by 2005. Ford executives realized around 2003 that while some improvements could be made, that 25 percent benchmark just wasn’t going to happen. (The price of gas had dropped and the cost of the required fuel-efficiency technology proved higher than anticipated.) The company apologized, essentially shrugging its shoulders and saying: We wanted to do this, we intended to do this, but we won’t be able to make it work.

And then, of course, there is the case of fossil fuel companies, which have worked tirelessly over the years to conceal their own knowledge of climate change, discredit scientists who studied the impacts of carbon emissions and attempted to alert the public, and buy off politicians who could impose regulations on them. A recent Harvard study even found that ExxonMobil’s subtle rhetoric around climate change blame helped shift responsibility for the issue toward individual behavior rather than corporate decisions. 

So we have businesses that greenwash by claiming to solve nonexistent problems, businesses that intend to solve problems but fail to, for whatever reason, and businesses that use some eco-friendly handwaving to overtly cover up the fact that they are causing enormous problems. It’s a real range! But you can more or less trace the motivation for every degree of greenwashing to the same source: survival. 

Corporate climate claims — even debunked ones — are still good investments if they give a company an edge over its competitors. Most marketing is about highlighting completely illusory differences between products, anyway! And in an era of heightened awareness of the role businesses play in perpetuating crimes against communities and ecosystems alike, consumers very much want to believe that they aren’t contributing to that harm personally.

“Want to believe” is kind of the operative term here. You, SHAMER, are asking why people continue to buy from companies once their shenanigans have been exposed. I suggest you pay close attention to the greenwashing cycle of repentance. Here’s how it goes: A particular journalistic investigation or activist campaign will identify some horrible thing that a company did, and they will respond: We hear you, we’ve done wrong, we will atone in this particular way — perhaps we shall plant some trees. And it’s very convenient for most consumers to believe that the problem is being fixed, because then the particular ethical decision of which gas station to stop at (a no-win game if ever I’ve heard one) is off their proverbial plate.

“The one thing that I know from reporting on this stuff is [companies] don’t spend money on things that don’t work, so it must be working on someone,” said Amy Westervelt, an environmental journalist who covers accountability. “It’s not working on climate activists, but that’s not really the intended audience. The people that they want to reach are people who are kind of looking for a reason to not be mad at fossil fuel companies, to not be worried about climate.”

Tom Lyon, Dow chair of sustainable science, technology and commerce at the University of Michigan, explained that there’s a documented “halo effect” that happens when companies make pro-environment claims. If they make some kind of gesture of responsibility — even a tangential one, such as Shell sponsoring the New Orleans Jazz Fest in the aftermath of some particularly brutal hurricanes — consumers will assume that the business is taking part in all sorts of other improvements that do not, in fact, exist.

However! Lyon says there’s some evidence we are entering a new era of consumer awareness. There’s been a relatively recent proliferation of social science studies examining how people react to greenwashing. Shoppers are becoming savvier thanks to the wealth of information — including reporting on corporate wrongs too egregious to ignore in the face of climate change — on the all-knowing internet. And, as Westervelt has covered, the new crop youth activists are very focused on the systemic causes of climate change, making them less likely to fall for surface-level promises.

So to that end, SHAMER, things might be shifting. But do not underestimate the capacity of public relations executives to quickly respond to evolving public opinion. The fast-moving agenda of the Biden Administration, for example, opens up all kinds of new frontiers for greenwashing. The ambiguity of “net-zero,” a topic my colleague Emily Pontecorvo has covered, offers myriad lucrative opportunities to mislead.

But maybe the ultimate answer to your question of why people accept greenwashing is as simple as why companies do it: Inertia is powerful, and most people just want to carry out their daily errands without having to weigh the ethical implications of every purchase. And to some extent, we all deserve that ease of mind. But the unvarnished truth is that it’s only really possible if we continue to hold companies and politicians to higher standards.