What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing stock image - globe on fire

Over the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by moulding the ordinary person into a consumer. Using advertising to encourage in people the ravenous hunger for purchasing more stuff and the accompanying feeling of hollowness and a need for more and more.

At the end of the 20th century, environmental problems began to arise from unchecked capitalist growth

Ever-expanding growth and the over-exploitation of land, water and animals continued at pace. Even despite its immense cost to animals, ecosystems and people in the developing world.

Even despite predictions by scientists that the world would be destroyed.

Out of-control global corporates needed strong storytelling and PR to support their continued exponential growth.

This insane need for economic/corporate growth gave rise to the ‘Green Growth’ and ‘Sustainability’ movements. The marketing and PR tactics employed to justify the continued growth of these brands and products despite their destruction, is known as:


How we got to this point in #history is #corporate #greed #greenwashing. #Resist! Fight back with your wallet! #Boycott4Wildlife #Boycottpalmoil #ClimateEmergency #Together4Forests! @GreenpeaceUK

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The origins of greenwashing can be found in the origins of consumerism, advertising and marketing itself

This is most powerfully illustrated by one of the original source about marketing from between the world wars by Edward Bernays, a landmark book called Propaganda published in 1928. This book would be instrumental for setting in train the agenda for economic growth in the West in the 20th Century.

Propaganda by Edward Bernays (1928)

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world”

Consumerism and greenwashing: there is a strong connection

Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained—that is if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity.… Today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand … [and] cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda … to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.

‘Propaganda’ by Edward Bernays, 1928

WHO considers marketing by the palm oil industry to be akin to tobacco and alcohol marketing

Marketing of palm oil does not occur in the traditional sense. Responding to a backlash against accusations of poor environmental and labour practices, the industry has sought to portray its products as sustainable, while highlighting the contribution to poverty alleviation.

There is also a mutual benefit for the palm oil and processed food industry, with the latter targeting advertisements for ultra-processed foods towards children (similar to efforts by the tobacco and alcohol industries in targeting children and adolescents) and the palm oil refining industry benefiting from the corresponding increase in sales of foods containing palm oil.

The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases, (2019),
Sowmya Kadandale, a Robert Martenb & Richard Smith.
World Health Organisation Bulletin.

World Organisation of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) Guide for promoting sustainable palm oil

Sustainability is meaningless, it’s time for a new enlightenment

Effectively, sustainability became the main ingredient of a “having your cake and eating it” ideology. The environment, and its ecological systems, were deemed to be sustained while equally economic development could continue apace.

But if sustainable development had delivered on its promise, humanity would now not be facing the crisis we call climate change.

Greenwashing solves nothing.

What was, and is, actually needed is the opposite of what has been promoted in order to try to maintain the economic status quo.

Dr Toni Fry, Griffith University ‘Sustainability is meaningless, it’s time for a new enlightenment, The Conversation.

Research into how to influence voluntary standards using expert knowledge.

“The ability of developing countries, especially small-scale actors within them, to shape standard setting and management to their advantage depends not only on overcoming important structural differences…but also on more subtle games. These include promoting the enrolment of one expert group or kind of expert knowledge over another, using specific formats of negotiation, and legitimating particular modes of engagement over others.”

Voluntary standards, expert knowledge and the governance of sustainability networks. (2013), Ponte, S. & Cheyns, E. Glob. Netw. 13, 459–477

Is it possible to design an eco-label without greenwashing?

In his book ‘Beyond Greenwash’ Hamish Van Der Ven somewhat naively sets out to answer that question.

Naive because embedded within capitalism is the drive towards exponential growth and the ecosystems and resources of our planet are finite – which makes it naive to think that we can continue to labour under the same system, yet expect a different result.

Still Van Der Ven has some valid insights to share here about how a eco-label could theoretically be designed to be free from greenwashing.

An eco-label without greenwashing has yet to materialise. This is because our current economic system does not consider ‘value’ to include: human rights, animal rights, the beauty of unspoiled nature and forests left intact – the only way the current system quantifies ‘value’ is financial growth. The virtue-signalling about doing the right thing and improving human rights, animal rights, environmental sustainability is greenwashing. If businesses DID care, these issues would have been sorted. Instead, they provide consumers with empty words and promises.

Extract below from ‘What’s in a label? Separating credible eco-labels from “greenwash” – Corporate Knights, 2021

Is it transparent?

Dubious eco-labels keep everything offline or hidden behind pay walls; credible eco-labels make their information freely available online, including information around breaches of rules and regulations and their resolutions, governance and funding.

Is it independent?

  • Consumers and procurement professionals should be wary of self-awarded ecolabels. Instead seek out ecolabels from a credible third-party organisation.
  • There should also be independence between the organisation that sets the standard and the organization that audits compliance against its criteria. This is important for preventing a conflict of interest.
  • Standard-setters generally receive revenues based on how widely their eco-labels are used. An eco-labeling organization that checks compliance against its own standard has an incentive to overlook non-compliances and set a lower bar for achievement.

Is it inclusive?

Do all stakeholders get a say in decision-making? If an eco-label promotes sustainable coffee production, then it should involve coffee farmers, scientists, processers, NGOs, and community members (amongst others) in standard-setting.

10 Tactics of Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing

Greenwashing Tactic #1: Hidden Trade Off

When a brand makes token changes while continuing with deforestation, ecocide or human rights abuses in another part of their business – this is ‘Hidden Trade Off’ For example, Nestle talks up satellite monitoring to stop palm oil deforestation. Yet…

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Greenwashing Tactic #2: No Proof

Claiming a brand or commodity is green without any supporting evidence The RSPO promises to deliver this with their certification: 1. Improves the livelihoods of small holder farmers 2. Stops illegal indigenous land-grabbing and human rights abuses 3. Stops deforestationThey…

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Greenwashing Tactic #3: Vagueness

Claiming a brand or commodity is ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ based on broad generalisations, unclear language or vague statements Jump to section Greenwashing: Vagueness in Language Greenwashing: Vagueness in certification standards Reality: Auditing of RSPO a failure Quote: EIA: Who Watches…

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Greenwashing Tactic #4: Fake Labels

Claiming a brand or commodity is green based on unreliable, ineffective endorsements or eco-labels such as the RSPO, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or FairTrade coffee and cocoa. Greenwashing: Fake Labels and fake certifications Ecolabels are designed to reassure consumers that…

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Greenwashing Tactic #5: Irrelevance and Deflection

Claiming a brand, commodity or industry is green based on irrelevant information Jump to section Greenwashing: Irrelevant Topics Greenwashing: Colonial Racism Research: Palm oil greenwashing and its link to climate denialism Reality: RSPO Certification Doesn’t Stop Deforestation, Human Rights Abuses…

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Greenwashing Tactic #6: The Lesser of Two Evils

Claiming that a brand, commodity or industry is greener than others in the same category, in order to excuse ecocide, deforestation, human rights and animal rights abuses. Jump to section Greenwashing: Lesser of Two Evils: Palm Oil Uses Less Land…

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Greenwashing Tactic #7: Lying

Telling outright lies over and over again to consumers until they are believed as truth Jump to section Greenwashing: Endangered species Reality: Endangered species Greenwashing: Human rights, land-grabbing and livelihoods for workers Reality: Human rights, land-grabbing and livelihoods for workers…

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Greenwashing Tactic #8: Design & Words

Using design principles and greenwashing language in order to trigger emotional and unconscious responses in consumers Jump to section Greenwashing: Design Principles Greenwashing Design Example: Palm Done Right Greenwashing Design Example: WWF Palm Oil Scorecard 2021 Greenwashing with Words: Vegan…

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10 Tactics of Sustainable Palm Oil Greenwashing - Summary

Explore the series

Research: Palm Oil Deforestation and its connection to retail brands

Join the #Boycott4Wildlife and fight greenwashing and deforestation by using your wallet as a weapon!

Further reading on palm oil, greenwashing and deceptive marketing

A Brief History of Consumer Culture, Dr Kerryn Higgs, The MIT Press Reader.

A Deluge of Double-Speak (2017), Jason Bagley. Truth in Advertising.

Anti-Corporate Activism and Collusion: The Contentious Politics of Palm Oil Expansion in Indonesia, (2022). Ward Berenschot, et. al., Geoforum, Volume 131, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2022.03.002

Balanced Growth (2020), In: Leal Filho W., Azul A.M., Brandli L., özuyar P.G., Wall T. (eds)Responsible Consumption and Production. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham.

Client Earth: The Greenwashing Files

Contrasting communications of sustainability science in the media coverage of palm oil agriculture on tropical peatlands in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, (2020), Felicia H M Liu, Vignaa Ganesan, Thomas E L Smith, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 114, 2020.

Commodifying sustainability: Development, nature and politics in the palm oil industry (2019) World Development
Volume 121, September 2019, Pages 218-228

Earth Day 2021: Companies Accused of Greenwashing (2021), Truth in Advertising.

Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia, (2018), Kimberly M. Carlson, Robert Heilmayr, Holly K. Gibbs, Praveen Noojipady et al. PNAS January 2, 2018 115 (1) 121-126

Fifteen environmental NGOs demand that sustainable palm oil watchdog does its job, (2019), Media release. Rainforest Action Network.

Gibt es nachhaltiges Palmöl? Satellitenbilder zeigen: Auch auf zertifizierten Plantagen brennt es immer wieder’, (2021), Adina Renner, Conradin Zellweger, Barnaby Skinner, Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Green Clean, (2021), Cathy Armour (Commissioner, Australian Securities & Investments Commission). Company Director Magazine.

Greenwash and spin: palm oil lobby targets its critics, (2011), Alex Helan. Ecologist: Informed by Nature.

Group Challenges Rainforest Alliance Earth-Friendly Seal of Approval, (2015), Truth in Advertising.

Green marketing and the Australian Consumer Law, (2011), Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Greenwashing: definition and examples. Selectra

Greenwashing of the Palm Oil Industry, (2007), Mongabay

Greenwashing: The Darker Side Of CSR, (2011), Priyanka Aggarwal, Shri Ram College of Commerce (University of Delhi). Indian Journal of Applied Research 4(3):61-66 DOI:10.15373/2249555X/MAR2014/20

How Cause-washing Deceives Consumers, (2021), Truth in Advertising

‘Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil? Satellite images show protected rainforest on fire’, (2021), Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Adina Renner, Conradin Zellweger, Barnaby Skinner.

Kellogg on Branding in a Hyper-Connected World, (2019), Alice M. Tybout (Editor-in-Chief), Tim Calkins (Editor-in-Chief), Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

No such thing as sustainable palm oil – ‘certified’ can destroy even more wildlife, say scientists, (2018), Jane Dalton. The Independent.

Palm oil watchdog’s sustainability guarantee is still a destructive con, (2019), Environmental Investigation Agency.

Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone. Tania Murray Li, Pujo Semedi, (2021), Duke University Press.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is ‘greenwashing’ labelled products, environmental investigation agency says, (2019), Annette Gartland. Changing Times Media.

RSPO: 14 years of failure to eliminate violence and destruction from the industrial palm oil sector, (2018), Friends of the Earth International.

Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable, (2018) , Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, Jingjing Liang, Alena Velichevskaya, Mo Zhou, Science of The Total Environment, Volume 652, 2019, Pages 48-51, ISSN 0048-9697.

Sustainable palm oil or certified dispossession? NGOs within scalar struggles over the RSPO private governance standard (2019): Working Paper No. 8,
Bioeconomy & Inequalities; Wicke, Janis.

Sustainable palm oil? RSPO’s greenwashing and fraudulent audits exposed, (2015) Ecologist: Informed by Nature.

Sustainable Palm Oil? Who Knows, Thanks to Derelict Auditors, (2015), Kirby, David, Take Part.

Sustainability standards in global agrifood supply chains, (2021), Meemken, EM., Barrett, C.B., Michelson, H.C. et al. Nat Food

Study in WHO journal likens palm oil lobbying to tobacco and alcohol industries, (2019), Tom Miles. Reuters

The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases, (2019), Sowmya Kadandale, a Robert Martenb & Richard Smith. World Health Organisation Bulletin

The palm oil industry and noncommunicable diseases, (2019), Sowmya Kadandale, a Robert Martenb & Richard Smith. World Health Organisation Bulletin 2019;97:118–128|

The Time Has Come to Rein In the Global Scourge of Palm Oil, (2021), Jocelyn Zuckerman. Yale Environment 360, Yale School of Environment.

Truth in Advertising: Green Guides and Environmentally Friendly Products, Federal Trade Commission: Protecting America’s Consumers.

‘What do Millennials think of palm oil? Nestlé investigates’, (2021), Flora Southey. Food Navigator.

What is Greenwashing and How to Tell Which Companies are Truly Environmentally Responsible, (2021), Hewlett Packard.

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Published by Palm Oil Detectives

Hi, I’m Palm Oil Detective’s Editor in Chief. Palm Oil Detectives is partly a consumer website about palm oil in products and partly an online community for writers, scientists, conservationists, artists and musicians to showcase their work and express their love for endangered species. I have a strong voice for creatures great and small threatened by deforestation. With our collective power we can shift the greed of the retail and industrial agriculture sectors and through strong campaigning we can stop them cutting down forests. Be bold! Be courageous! Join the #Boycott4Wildlife and stand up for the animals with your supermarket choices

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