The condition of our environment is a common topic in recent conversations. And with its endlessness, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. With so much going on, it’s rational to put our focus on solutions and real action. When we talk about solutions, the word ‘sustainability’ may be present countless times. In many cases, the topic of sustainability is likely to be found when we talk about fashion or food. But recently, the word has spread rapidly, making way for the emergence of new terms such as sustainability laws and sustainable cities. Additionally, some companies have positions catering to this area, with job titles such as Chief Sustainability Officers.
A companion to the widespread usage is an existing debate on what the word actually constitutes. HuffPost illustrated the dilemma in 2017, going back to the emergence of the word, to the sudden surge, and finally its fruition into the popular vocabulary today. With these definitions, the word already has its own exclusive connotation — “green,” “effective” or “ethical.” But those words in these contexts also don’t illustrate clear behaviors. Therefore, they have come to be considered as buzzwords. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “an expression that has become fashionable by being used a lot”, buzzwords are vulnerable to be thrown around and placed easily in conditions that don’t best represent them. Discussion among scholars about these buzzwords is also present, with some refusing to subjugate to the discourse, asserting that “sustainability” is more “technical than trendy,” while others insisted on the cost we may face due to the word’s pluralism.
Hasan Minhaj explained in his talk show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, how “sustainability” may not always mean what we understand — or want to understand — it to be. In a Volume 5 episode titled ‘The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion,’, Minhaj mentioned greenwashing, a term used when brands provide misleading information that gives impressions that they are greener than they actually are. These cases can be found in both luxury and fast fashion. Greenwashing’s existence is not limited to fashion, but it can be found in the travel, food, and tech industries, politics, and even in the ‘green’ products industry.
It might be pretty clear why companies chose to commit to acts like these, obviously to reel in consumers. As the climate and environmental problems spike in trends over recent years, we as consumers start to alter our buying habits as well. We even start to change our mindsets to that of preferring environmentally-friendly brands and products over those that do not. With this in mind, greenwashing may seem like an easier path for companies to take in order to accommodate to this change in consumer behavior. Without having to reap the cost of modifying production processes, they can rely on clever marketing.
A report by The Shelton Group did describe an appeal towards certain buzzwords, such as “green” and “eco-friendly”. This may mislead consumers into buying what they thought were ethically-made products but in reality were not. In a deeper form, if consumers buy into this, they may be vulnerable to moral licensing.
In moral licensing, people perceive their prior morally-good behaviors as an allowance for them to commit less moral behaviors in the future. In this case, after making a “sustainable” purchase, consumers might distinguish the behavior as good, and eventually they run the risk of feeling they’ve earned a “license” to do less green behaviors. Recent research by Jannis Engel and Nora Szech from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) provides definite proof of this phenomenon, adding that regular consumers are prone to be unconscious about the effects of moral licensing. Therefore, it is likely that companies may approach this lack of awareness to their business’s advantage.
Vice argued that the absence of awareness and education on buzzwords like “ethical” and “sustainable” might reinforce brands to “be vague about their environmental and social commitments.” Simply put, this might interfere with companies being transparent to their consumers.
With buzzwords leading consumers to fall for greenwashing tactics, it’s fair to say that they might perceive their purchases the wrong way. In other words, because of vague words and greenwashing, people will assume they are buying ethical products (a moral act). But in reality, the purchase will not truly be morally sound. Unfortunately, because this actuality won’t be in their perception, there is a possibility they would still infer the purchase as a permit for less ethical acts. To sum up, the utilization of buzzwords in untruthful greenwashing marketing by brands might contribute to consumers’ validation of committing consequent morally-less behaviors.
To address this, we consumers need to be informed of the snowballing effects of the usage of buzzwords as well as greenwashing, on both our purchasing behavior as well as our own moral judgement. Apart from moral licensing, there may be other things we can fall prey to in terms of our role as consumers, so it’s in our (and our environment’s) very best interest to be more conscious of so-called ethical claims of other parties. The easiest thing to do right now? Reduce your consumption. Ultimately, buying less is better than buying green, for the environment and also for you.