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Everyone’s suddenly gone green – but nobody’s turning red

Salon Luitpold c/o WALA: "On greenwashing and real sustainability". With Carmen Grebmer, Leo Frühschütz, Nicoline Wöhrle, Mirjam Smend.
Photo: Salon Luitpold

Everyone’s suddenly gone green – but nobody’s turning red

An ocean plastic rucksack on your back, a jute bag on your arm and tomatoes from the largest organic retailer in the country: caring about the environment has long been considered good form. The same goes for displaying this commitment externally – and that goes for companies and customers alike. But can we really trust that some brands are as sustainable as they say they are in their adverts? And what does ‘greenwashing’ actually mean?

Greenwashing doesn’t mean something’s actually green

Put bluntly, greenwashing is when a company or a product pretends to be more sustainable than it actually is. If this false greenwashing starts to flake off, it shows the brand and the product in a very bad light indeed. And yet greenwashing is almost systematic. That’s because appealing to customers’ green conscience promises greater turnover and higher profits. Often, it’s hard to identify greenwashing. Because it’s not always as crudely done as a major oil company heralding eco-friendly solutions for regenerative energies.

You’ve even got to keep your eyes peeled when doing your weekly shop: some products are actually organic, others just hint at it. But why do they nevertheless end up in our shopping baskets, and especially the baskets held by those who follow an eco-friendly, sustainable lifestyle? It’s simple – everyday stresses, time pressure and the force of habit are to blame. It’s easy to be impressed by shrill marketing when you pop to the shops after finishing work. Your shower gel has a flowery name? It must be natural. Your tomatoes are in a basket that looks like it’s made from jute? They look super-healthy. Your yoghurt pot is covered in a plastic film with images of wood? That seems eco-friendly. If you pick them up with a good conscience, it’s likely you’ve fallen into the greenwashing trap.

Seals, labels and the like

Are they just an optical illusion, deliberate manipulation by manufacturers and chain retailers? Or do those who want to live a genuinely sustainable life simply need to better inform themselves? Aren’t politicians and companies obliged to call time on greenwashing? And how could they do that? Do seals and awards bring clarity?

The problem: there are next-to-no state-backed or unified, independent seals. For example, companies are allowed to adorn their products with a ‘CO2 neutral’ seal without proving how this neutral balance comes about. It’s becoming harder and harder to identify sustainable products and distinguish them from greenwashed goods when shopping, but reliable, generally applicable and independent certificates can offer guidance. That’s the case for the Natrue seal: founded in 2007 by the largest producers of genuine natural and organic toiletries, including Dr. Hauschka, Natrue has now been awarded to more than 60 members in 30 countries and more than 6,300 products.

Be green and talk about it

It’s funny: you rarely hear a peep from the people, brands and companies who are genuinely sustainable. Sometimes they don’t even talk about the fact that they’re doing good because acting with respect for people and the natural world is second-nature to them. That’s why it’s often hard for these companies to engage in communication. Regardless of their self-image, these companies are active in an area that is also home to shrill marketers and greenwashing.

So, should companies that act sustainably stop being so restrained and also speak up? After all, their authentic stories are the best identifiers to distinguish between genuine commitment and superficial greenwashing. Narratives of fair partnerships, social responsibility and ecological living may not reach the end customer by the direct, shortest route. But they do get there – and they stick. In this way, they contribute to enhancing the visibility of the topic and inspire even more people to walk down a truly sustainable path together.

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About Salon Luitpold

The famous Munich-based coffee shop Luitpold has seen host Stephan Meier welcome familiar faces from the worlds of art and culture, science, politics and society for more than 10 years as part of its ‘Salon Luitpold’ series. The discussions are both inspired and inspiring, focusing on visions and projects to enliven society.

On the topic of "Greenwashing and real sustainability" discussed in a relaxed round:
Nicoline Wöhrle, Head of Communications at WALA Heilmittel GmbH and Dr. Hauschka
Carmen Grebmer, lecturer in market and consumer psychology at Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts
Mirjam Smend, fashion journalist, editor and fair fashion enthusiast
Leo Frühschütz, freelance journalist and organic farming expert.