Understanding Greenwashing: How Companies Mislead Consumers

Greenwashing is a deceptive tactic used by companies to exaggerate their products’ environmental benefits to consumers. By using terms like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable,” which are difficult to verify, companies create the illusion of being environmentally conscious. They may also selectively share research data that emphasizes their positive practices while downplaying harmful ones.

Exploring the Truth Behind Electric Vehicle (EV) Marketing:

Let’s start with the basics: why do consumers choose to purchase electric vehicles? According to Pew Research, approximately 72% of those who would consider buying an EV cite environmental benefits and gas savings as major reasons. With such a significant majority of consumers gravitating towards eco-friendly options, it’s not surprising that EV marketing efforts have focused on this angle. However, are the messages we hear about EVs’ environmental friendliness entirely truthful?

While EVs don’t require gas, the source of their electricity is crucial. In areas where coal-fired power plants are used, EVs’ environmental benefits are minimal compared to traditional vehicles. EVs are also designed to be lightweight, and as a result, they contain several high-performing metals, such as lithium. Unfortunately, many of these metals come from environmentally destructive mines, with unfavorable labor practices.

Despite these issues, marketing efforts from EV companies continue to push buzzwords such as “lower emissions,” “sustainability,” and “eco-friendliness” to promote their products. These messages are reinforced by buyer incentives and affirmations, which make consumers feel like they’re making a positive impact on the planet. However, the shameful secrets of coal-derived electricity and lithium mining are conveniently hidden behind these marketing efforts, leaving consumers misinformed and misled.

Jeep | Stellantis for its 2023 Super Bowl ad campaign. Did you know?! The carbon footprint of last year’s 10 most popular Big Game ads is the same as roughly 2,800 flights from Philadelphia to Kansas City, the two cities featured in 2023’s Super Bowl LVII.

A Classic Example of Greenwashing:

Nissan’s Emotionally Driven Ad Campaign for the Leaf Electric Car.
Nissan once created an advertisement for the Leaf electric car to boost its marketing efforts. The ad featured a polar bear that traveled from its melting habitat and into the city. During its journey, the bear looked distressed upon seeing gas-guzzling vehicles and other modes of transportation. Eventually, the bear arrived in a suburban area where a man was about to enter his Nissan Leaf. The bear approached the man and gave him a big bear hug. Aww.

This advertising carries the message that buying the Nissan Leaf made that man a savior of the planet, earning the gratitude of the bear. However, despite the gentle piano music and a “innovation for the planet, innovation for all” voiceover from Robert Downey Junior, all is not as it seems. Commercials that pull at the heartstrings are often hyperbole, praying on the good intentions of the consumer. Can individual suburban drivers stop the melting ice caps and become the hero bears need, obviously not, but that’s another tangent for another day.

Why it Matters:

Greenwashing campaigns influence public buying decisions. Many people purchase electric vehicles because of how advertising campaigns make them feel, and how they feel about themselves as they are (hopefully) making a positive impact. However, they don’t realize that impact is muddied with other, more silenced issues.

Avoiding the hype:

Just like buying a home, selecting a primary doctor, or choosing a school district, it’s important to research the good, the bad, and the ugly when it’s time to purchase a new vehicle. Don’t let advertising lead you astray. Some electric vehicles are better than others, yet some offer little to no benefit over a traditional combustion engine. Driving habits often have more impact on your carbon footprint than anything else, regardless of how your vehicle is powered. The responsibility of the consumer is to be skeptical of environmental claims, mitigate the effect of greenwashing by doing your own research, and support companies that are genuinely committed to sustainability, and most importantly: transparency.

Sources:

Pew Research Center. (2023, November 3). Americans’ views of electric cars as gas alternative are mixed | Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/07/13/how-americans-view-electric-vehicles/#:~:text=A%20majority%20of%20this%20group,%25)%20are%20major%20reasons%20why.

Greenwashing: definition and examples. (2023, June 19). Climate Consulting. https://climate.selectra.com/en/environment/greenwashing

Hayes, A. (2024, January 22). What is greenwashing? How it works, examples, and statistics. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp#:~:text=Greenwashing%20involves%20making%20an%20unsubstantiated,impact%20than%20they%20actually%20do.

Wade, L. (2016, March 31). Tesla’s electric cars aren’t as green as you might think. WIRED. https://www.wired.com/2016/03/teslas-electric-cars-might-not-green-think/

Beals, R. K. (2023, February 13). Super Bowl ads aren’t just expensive, they’ve got a costly carbon footprint. MarketWatch. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/super-bowl-ads-arent-just-expensive-theyve-also-got-a-costly-carbon-footprint-heres-just-how-much-14a1cd80?mod=search_headline&mod=article_inline


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