Week 2: What is Greenwashing, and How to Spot It

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By Leyla Acaroglu

In our hyper-consumption based societies, it’s always smart to raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear organizations make claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the quest to “save the Earth”, (although at the UnSchool we truly believe that no one can “save” the Earth, but we can all change it!). But when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.

Cambridge Dictionary says  greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

As an analogy, greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals who say they care about the environment, it's a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes.  And more so just confuses the issue attempting to be resolved.

Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of marketing and PR efforts. But the common denominator among all greenwashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s also really not helping to further sustainable design or circular economy initiatives. Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.

One such classic greenwashing case is that of the car giant Volkswagen, who has admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting various vehicles with a “defeat” device — a proprietary software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions testing, altering the performance to reduce the emissions level, all while touting the low-emissions features of its vehicles through marketing campaigns. In truth, however, these engines were emitting up to 40x the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.

There are countless other case studies across all industries that show how NOT to do sustainability by discovering more examples of greenwashing — like the meat mega-giant Tyson, who got busted for false claims about antibiotic-free chickens. Or the fossil fuel giant BP (who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations) and then  got called out for their green misdirection,  and of course Coke, who has been accused of greenwashing through ‘natural’ sugar claims that it started marketing as a way to attract more health-conscious consumers.

Years ago the design agency Futerra made a really cool resource called the Sins of Greenwashing, which classifies the many ways that companies participate in greenwashing, from outright lying through to making claims with no scientific proof. This is one of the reasons that life cycle thinking is such an important tool to know how to access and use when making sustainable design choices, because many people who get caught greenwashing are often not intentionally doing it, but more so are ill-informed of the impacts of different materials. They thus end up accidentally making unsubstantiated claims about environmental preferences, or worse still making assumptions about what is green or not based on environmental folklore or simple google searching!  

Greenwashing AND single-use plastics

One of the most pervasive examples of greenwashing is in the world of single-use plastic. Did you know that half of the worlds disposable plastic has been produced in the last 15 years! And 91% of plastic produced globally is NOT recycled. You have probably already heard of the global plastic-in-the-ocean-disaster we are seeing, with stats that say there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 and the horrific images of once pristine beaches being overwhelmed by plastic debris. It's no wonder the world is up in arms about this tragic by-product of our disposable lifestyles.

This alarming issue drove us to create our free Post-Disposable Activation Kit, and it’s why we talk so much about the dangerous idea that recycling will solve all the problems, when in fact the main issue is that we have normalized disposability to the point where everything is valueless. And not only is recycling a bit of environmental folklore, but so are many of the bioplastics being marketed as sustainable design solutions.

Bioplastics are plastics made from bio based polymers that are engineered to perform like normal petrochemical plastics. In nearly every case, they need a certain set of conditions to break down in (oxygen and sunlight that aren’t present in a landfill or the ocean, for example). Further to the end of life management issues, they also require a certain amount of petrochemicals in their production phase so often have a similar amount of ‘plastic products’ embedded within them.  Additionally, since plastic bags take a lot of energy and other resources to manufacture in the first place, a “friendlier” plastic is not helpful at all when using life-cycle thinking. The FTC began cracking down on the misleading claims of bioplastic manufacturers in 2013 and handed out more warnings to marketers in 2014.

This was the case in Australia years ago when a plastic bag company swapped to ‘biodegradable’ plastic, which technically didn't fully degrade, but instead just breaks down into smaller parts unless it's processed in a digester specifically designed to create the conditions for biodegradation. What is actually needed is a compostable bag, which is a different thing entirely. The bag made big eco claims, and the consumer affairs watchdog fined them and required them to stop selling the product as it was completely false. In fact, Australia has this entire guide on how to avoid greenwashing!

As consumers, we have the power to see through the greenwashing and calling bullshit where it's due, rather then falling into the safe belief that there are simple solutions to complex problems. We can continue to pressure corporations to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable and circular design solutions by changing our own habits and behaviours to support the more sustainable options. We believe that all of these problems are solvable with good design, a systems mindset, and services that reconfigure how we meet our human needs without damaging Earth in the process. If you want to participate in the global post-disposable redesign challenge, check out this set of design briefs that we created.

Bust more Eco-Myths

Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on. The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution and global species extinctions. The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident, as they don't have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what is not.

We are approaching a critical time in which more organizations and individuals are adopting sustainable design and zero waste living practices, and entire communities are banning disposable plastics, It’s important to be able to quickly identify instances of greenwashing, and replace them with truly sustainable practices both as a consumer and as an employee (which the UnSchool sustainability course covers in more detail).

This is a time of abundant opportunities.

We all can be change agents in considering and designing sustainable outcomes in the world around us that affect systemic wellbeing — socially, economically, and environmentally. When we frame sustainability as a practice that helps us create a future that we’re excited about living in, we generate optimism about solving complex problems (which is what’s required to truly tackle these issues!).

Pair that with creative thinking, knowledge of systems and life cycle thinking, and a foundation built on what sustainable design in practice really looks like, and we’ll have tangible outcomes that are positively disrupting the status quo and affecting change.

To level up your capacity to make more effective change-making decisions for a sustainable and regenerative planet, consider starting our UnMasters track to get certified by the UnSchool as a professional creative change-maker.  

WEEK 1: One Person Can't Save the World, but Everyone Can Change It

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By Leyla Acaroglu

Our lives are made up of actions that come about as a result of choices that we often make based on the available information we have on hand.

So when someone sees a tsunami of problems presented to them day in day out by the mainstream and now social media, it's easy to assume that these issues are disconnected to us, that poverty or environmental problems are the outcome of poor policy decisions, or even someone else's bad choices.

From a young age we are taught cause and effect; we intuitively know that every choice has ramifications. If you turn on a tap to get water, it only flows because there is an entire system that has been set up to enable it to do so. This is made painfully obvious when, for whatever reason, the water doesn't flow. Say you forget to pay your water bill, or a pipe bursts due to traffic work somewhere down the street, and suddenly you are confronted with a system impact that is an immediate loss of something that you are used to being always available to you. There are actions you can take to remedy this situation, like calling the water company or paying your bill if you have the means to do so. But, when it comes to bigger issues outside of your immediate control, the actions an individual can take to remedy the situation are less obvious and often far from the mind's ability to contribute constructively — so it chooses to avoid the issue instead.

We live on a planet that is intrinsically interconnected; we breathe in the byproduct of photosynthesis, which in turn oxygenates our blood and allows us to breathe out carbon to contribute to the cycle continuing. Each one of us, no matter how big or small our sphere of influence is, has an impact on the world around us. Everything we use, say, do — it all has the potential to unintentionally cause a negative impact or intentionally have a positive one, and that is why being equipped with the tools for making systems change is so fundamental in overcoming the reductive avoidance that so many people opt into.

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Know it or not, our lives are marked by change — changes that we can’t avoid.

For example, age: each birthday, the age we define ourselves by goes up by one.

  • Hair: it grows, goes gray, is lost, and in some cases, grows in very odd places.

  • Weather: it gets colder, hotter, and even more so nowadays, it's getting weirder.

  • Life aspirations: if you followed the dreams of your five year old self, you may be a miniature dragon doctor now.  

  • Opinions: every other day they should change.

  • Days: like seven times a week they change.

  • Lovers: insert your time frame here _____, but what we love changes over time as we grow and evolve as humans.

Change is the one constant in life (thanks Heraclitus for this great quote). We are all changing constantly, and the world we interact day in day out, changes us.

It’s less often that you are saving things. Like maybe you saved a baby from a burning building in your dreams (or in real life if you are a firefighter perhaps?), or you may have recently saved a breakable item from smashing on the floor. You may even be one of those people who is good at saving money. But changing is way more common than saving, so let's get this straight. YOU, yes you, you change the world every single day that you are alive, and in turn, the world changes you. You are in an interdependent relationship with a bunch of systems and hidden processes that you may not have any idea about, and together, we are going to uncover what they are, how they work, and why you can help change them by activating your creative capacity and leadership so that you can contribute to helping the world works better for all of us.

The saying “change is hard” is often used as an excuse for not taking action or deflecting responsibility to other parts of the system. But everything worth doing requires work, and if the systems changes needed were easy, then they would have been done already. Easy solutions to complex problems often lead right back into the problem —  that's one of the basic tenets of a systems mindset, and one of the core things we teach at the UnSchool.

You can't make change unless you know what needs to be changed. Just like you don't know what you don't know until you discover that you don't know it!

I started the UnSchool to help people like you. It’s all about providing tools to help redesign the world through creative systems change. I know that it's not possible for any one person to suddenly save the entire world, and nor should be the responsibility for anyone to do so, but it is certainly the case that every single person can change it. In fact, the world does not need ‘saving’ — it is us humans that need a salvation, given the hyper-consumption fueled constant-growth mindset that has permeated modern societies at the expense of the systems that sustain us and the values that maintain our species’ success!

The power to make change lies in our personal ability to see our own agency and opportunity for for creative leadership and to then make intentional choices about how we will activate the influence we organically have on the world around us, while working on enhancing this to a point where we can actively make more positive systems change.  

One of the reasons I started the UnSchool almost five years ago, was to connect and encourage a global community of rebellious creatives willing to activate their agency for sustainable and regenerative future. It’s for all the people who are deeply passionate about contributing to changing the way we humans treat and interact with the world, so that we offer back more then we take.

All the tools and resources that I create are intended to support people agentizing themselves to be positively disruptive change-makers, rather than passive observers, participants, or even complainers of the status quo.

Developing healthy critical thinking, reflexivity, a systems mindset, and a problem-loving attitude are all fundamentals to increasing your capacity to take action and to contribute to needed systems change. To be able to see the relationships between things that occur provides the foundations for moving from blame to understanding, which in turn supports the development of a problem-loving mindset.

Over the last 15 years of working in sustainability and cultural change, I have met way too many people who say that they are trying to solve problems when, in fact, they are reinforcing them by not choosing to understand the relationships and hidden aspects that make them exist to begin with. This reductive linear thinking plagues decision making and is one of the fundamental reasons that problem solving needs systems thinking.

I made a choice to dedicate my career to figuring out how to contribute to effective positive change and how to overcome the reductive mindset that disempowers and disables, while being a problem lover, systems explorer, and supporter of regenerative and sustainable change. To further support changemakers developing their own learning journeys and discoveries. That’s why I am so proud and excited to share the new certification systems (UnSchool style) that we have developed. The three advanced learning UnSchool systems are self-directed learning journeys into activating positive change, as a Practitioner, UnMasters or Educator.

Of course you don't need to come to the UnSchool to make change! But if you want the support and want to become more agentized around creative leadership, systems, sustainability, and design, then we have short or long-form classes for you to help change and not save the beautiful planet we all share!