As concern for the environment rises, Davinder Raju discusses the importance of avoiding ‘greenwashing’ and how it can damage patient trust.
An ever-increasing number of individuals want to do the right thing for the environment. They prefer to purchase sustainable, eco-friendly products and services.
Moreover, consumers are willing to pay a premium for such goods and actively seek out companies touting green credentials.
Research shows 64% of Generation X consumers would spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. This figure jumps to 75% among millennials.
Unfortunately, when it comes to light that the company in question is simply capitalising on this consumer trend and is guilty of greenwashing, consumers rightly feel defrauded.
So, what is greenwashing?
Prominent environmentalist Jay Westerveld originally coined the term ‘greenwashing’ in a 1986 essay.
The essay claimed that the hotel industry falsely promoted the reuse of towels as part of a broader environmental strategy. In fact, however, the act was designed as a cost-saving measure.
Greenwashing is the practice of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products or services are more environmentally friendly than they really are to maximise profits.
Typically, the company will claim to be environmentally friendly in its marketing message. Still, its real life activity is either ineffective or insignificant compared to the business’s negative impact on the environment.
A prevalent problem
In a 2021 study, the European Commission identified wide-ranging instances of greenwashing. Their findings reveal that greenwashing is a prevalent problem:
- In 42% of cases, green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive
- In 59% of cases, there was no easily accessible evidence to support the green claim
- Also, in more than 50% of cases, the company could not provide sufficient information for consumers to assess the accuracy of the green claim.
A classic example of greenwashing comes from Volkswagen Group. They cheated emissions tests by fitting vehicles with software that could detect when a vehicle was undergoing a laboratory emissions test.
It subsequently altered the performance to reduce the emissions level. In real world driving, however, the levels of nitrogen oxide gases emitted by the diesel engines were up to 40 times higher than the laboratory test levels.
More recently, Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M has been facing a lawsuit. Last month it was accused of greenwashing, or engaging in false advertising about the sustainability of its clothing.
The case was brought forward by a student who alleged she had overpaid for a fashion piece marketed as ‘conscious’. She claimed that several pieces of the brand’s ‘Conscious Collection’ were advertised as using less water to manufacture despite using more.
As a result of greenwashing, many consumers do not believe company claims about their sustainability practices.
In the UK, consumer protection law does not prevent businesses from making environmental claims about their products and services, provided they do not mislead consumers.
It provides a framework for businesses to make environmental claims that help consumers make informed choices.
Consumer protection law, therefore, gives consumers important protection concerning environmental claims.
It also protects consumers from misleading environmental claims and protects businesses from unfair competition.
As well as this, it creates a level playing field for those businesses whose products or services genuinely represent a better choice for the environment and who can make truthful environmental claims. In addition, separate legislation directly protects businesses from misleading marketing.
The law, therefore, encourages businesses to invest in their positive environmental performance and enables businesses to communicate these genuine efforts to consumers transparently and to reap the commercial benefits.
Action plan for your practice
So as a dental practice, how do you ensure you capitalise on your green performance and not damage your patients’ trust by inadvertent greenwashing?
- Make your claims clear and easy to understand. Include specific certifications and verifiable endorsements from credible third-party eco-organisations. Many dental practices have taken advantage of Green Dentistry’s app to transition to greener dentistry
- Back up your sustainability claims with data
- Clean up your operations. Eat, sleep, breathe sustainability, and create a culture of sustainable dentistry in your practice
- Be honest and transparent about your dental practice’s green practices and plans
- Don’t make deceptive statements. For example, you claim that using an amalgam separator is eco-friendly and differentiates your practice from ‘non-eco’ practices when it is a legal requirement for all practices to use them.
Problems can also arise when businesses make substantial claims about net zero or carbon neutrality targets.
Given the difficulties that consumers have in understanding these terms, it is essential that claims are as clear as possible.
Dental practices should be transparent about what they are doing and how they are doing it.
They should ensure that they use the correct terminology.
In addition, they should include accurate information about whether (and the degree to which) they are actively reducing the carbon emissions created in the delivery of their services or are off-setting emissions with carbon removal.
Where dental practices are off-setting, they should provide information about any scheme they use (which should be based on recognised standards and measurements, capable of objective verification).
Additionally, terms like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly,’ especially if used without explanation, are likely to be seen as suggesting that a product, service, process, brand or business as a whole has a positive environmental impact, or at least no adverse impact.
Unless a business can prove that, it risks falling short of its legal obligations.
In short, don’t pretend to be greener than you are in your marketing message.
Ensure that your environmental claims are honest, fair, and sincere and that they reflect your practice’s mission.
Also, consider becoming a member of Green Dentistry and join the movement towards delivering sustainable dentistry and capitalise on patients’ desire to seek out greener businesses.
Catch previous Eco Dentist columns
- Minimal intervention oral care and sustainability
- The plastic waste tsunami facing dentistry
- ‘Dentistry is unsustainable’
- We’re not striving for perfection
- Reducing fuel bills and carbon footprints.
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