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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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5 Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a phenomenon closely associated with the extreme focus on individual responsibility for tackling climate change. Companies have capitalised on the necessity to reduce greenhouse emissions and prevent climate collapse in an attempt to maximise their goals. They do this through marketing their products as environmentally friendly or not environmentally harmful. Combined with the emphasis on individual responsibility, greenwashing can encourage people to believe that they are having a stronger positive environmental effect on the planet as customers than they might do in reality. This is an example of cultural disavowal – seducing us into a belief that our individual purchasing choices are the answer to the climate crisis. At the same time, larger scale policies that could place limits on how different companies, industries and governments operate are not put into practice. Companies can still benefit from large profits while the Earth’s resources are still being depleted, natural habitats are destroyed, and the global south continues to suffer from the consumerism of the global north.

Watch the following humorous short video (from Make My Money Matter [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) that makes fun of greenwashing.

Download this video clip.Video player: the-hidden-relationship-with-kit-harington-and-rose-leslie.mp4
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Often, the choice of which product or service to buy is more complex than its advertising would lead us to believe. If we take the example of buying an electric car rather than a petrol one, we need to consider the impact of that choice over the whole lifetime of the car in order to fully understand the environmental impact. Production, maintenance and charging of electric car batteries still results in high CO2 emissions, particularly in countries where a large proportion of electricity is generated from the burning of fossil fuels. We also need to consider more than just CO2 emissions. Producing batteries requires the mining of lithium, cobalt and manganese. These processes require huge amounts of water and result in toxic waste contaminating water systems. The burden of this is felt by areas in the global south such as Democratic Republic of the Congo where mines are hazardous to health and safety, and child labour is often used.

Car manufacturers that spend millions on advertising do not give us these facts. Instead, they use images and messages to convey a simple choice – buy an electric car and do your bit for the environment. This is not to say that we should not switch to electric vehicles, but we should be aware of relevant facts. It would be better if governments invested in public transport infrastructure and our social and economic systems were adapted such that we needed fewer cars. This would not suit the interests of the car manufacturers however. It is very difficult to be an ethical consumer because we have been shaped and are enmeshed in our Modern consumerist culture.

Activity 5 Greenwashing

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Watch the following video clip from London Live regarding greenwashing.

Greenwashing and how to spot it

Find a product in your home that you have purchased recently because you believed it was a green product. What made you buy that particular product? Have a look at the packaging and labelling. Are there any signs of greenwashing? If you were influenced by the product’s advertising, how did this seem to be achieved?

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In addition to the usual emphasis on warning individuals about surreptitious influences on their consumer choices, the clip also describes action at a corporate level. London has huge purchasing power and therefore can have a big influence on corporations’ actions to go genuinely green.