Greenwashing: 3 Recent Stand-out examples of Unethical Marketing in 2023

Jeroen Schapendonk
Jeroen Schapendonk
Brand Strategist
minutes reading time
February 2, 2023

Greenwashing Case Study - Volkswagen Dieselgate

Volkswagen Dieselgate – CO2 Emission Scandal

Dieselgate, one of the biggest emission scandals to happen in 2015. Car manufacturer Volkswagen had installed defeat devices into a large number of their diesel cars that could detect whether the cars were on the road or being tested. The defeat device recognised tests and altered the engine performance in a way that would lead to lower emissions. Since the discovery, Volkswagen has admitted cheating the emissions tests in the US.

From Unique Selling Point to Greenwashing

Volkswagen had used their diesel car’s low emissions as a unique selling point and based their marketing campaigns on these through cheating achieved results. The conscious unethical decision making is what makes Volkswagen’s brand image even worse. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found 482,000 cars just in the US manufactured with these defeat devices. However, Volkswagen had admitted to around 11 million cars worldwide being assembled with these defeat devices. By using their diesel car’s false low emission as a selling point, Volkswagen has shown a perfect example of what greenwashing is about.

How Volkswagen tried to trick the world

The defeat device works complicated and has a clear purpose, lowering the emissions of a car’s engine whilst being tested. The defeat device could recognise emission tests because of the installed computer software that monitors speed, engine operation, air pressure and the positioning on the steering wheel. The engine was installed with a second ‘safety mode’ where the engine would lower performance and power to save on emissions and thus doing better on the emission tests. When the cars would be on the normal road again, the safety mode would switch back to normal power. In reality, the engines emitted 40 times over the CO2 emissions allowed in the US. According to The Economic Times the scandal has cost Volkswagen over 30 billion euros in fines and legal costs. Volkswagen had set up a budget to cover the costs of recalling millions of cars worldwide worth 6.7 billion euros.

Image of Volkswagen's Dieselgate Scandal Hoaxwagen CO2 emmision scandal

Greenwashing Case Study – Innocent from Coca Cola is Guilty

Innocent accused of greenwashing for false advertisement about plastic pollution

The ASA has banned ads for drinks firm Innocent after it ruled they "misled" customers regarding the environmental impact of their products. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has issued a warning against an Innocent ad for single-use plastics, saying they may lead people to believe that buying these items will have an environmentally positive impact. The advertisements show animated characters encouraging consumers to participate in "fixing up the planet" by purchasing Innocent products. The ASA has ruled that the advertising implied that buying Innocent drinks would have a positive impact on the environment.

Plastic Rebellion takes their concerns to the ASA

The Advertising Standards Authority received a complaint from twenty-six plastic rebellion representatives who accused the ads of misleading customers by exaggerating their environmental benefits. The bottles used by Innocent are made out of 50% recycled plastic but also 50% raw materials. Besides that, Innocent is owned by coca cola who is among the biggest polluters in the world according to an article from the guardian.

Innocent’s response to greenwashing accusations

In response to the ruling, Innocent made claims that no suggestions were made that would imply that buying Innocent products would have a positive influence on the environment. “Instead, the ruling states that Innocent said the ad was a "call to action", asking for their drinkers to join them in making changes happen, which was demonstrated by the change of leadership from the man to the otter.” The greenwashing case was put in the spotlight by environmental activists group ‘Plastic Rebellion’. Their protests and attempts to create awareness for this issue can be found on their Youtube channel.

Greenwashing Case Study – IKEA held responsible for Illegal logging & conspiracy with the FSC

Ikea’s involvement in one of the biggest illegal logging scandals

Ikea, one of the biggest multinationals in the design and selling of ready-to-assemble furniture, has been involved in greenwashing. According to a research report by Earthsight called Flatpacked Forests, Ikea has been selling millions or chairs partly manufactured from illegally acquired wood from Ukrainian forests. According to Earthsight’s calculations, approximately one tree is chopped down every second to live up to the worldwide demand for Ikea-products.

Who is the Forest Stewardship Council?- FSC

To understand how this has been possible we have to go back to the root of the problem, the ‘sustainable’ FSC-label from the Forest Stewardship Council. FSC is an international non-profit organisation that looks after the responsible and sustainable management of our world's forests. “The FSC-label is considered the gold standard of forest accreditation”

The value and credibility of the FSC-label

However, the organisation that is supposed to manage and regulate companies that supply companies such as Ikea with wood, fails to protect the forests.If the certification organisation isn’t doing their job correctly, there is a big problem. The consumer unconsciously purchases ‘non-sustainable’ products with an FSC-label that have contributed to the destruction of these poorly protected forests.

Impact of illegal logging on Ukrainian protected forests for production of Ikea furniture

In the Ukrainian forests live protected European mammals such as bears, bizons, lynxes and wolves. Deforestation of these forests happen under the falls claims of sanitary wood chopping, which is cleaning up diseased trees that are actually perfectly fine. Besides this, the organisations are permitted to chop down trees outside the borders stated in their licence permits. In doing so, they are also endangering the wildlife that inhabits these forests. Whistleblowers from the Ukrainian wood industry have told Earthsight they are under continuous pressure to chop down more trees than legally permitted, they have testified anonymously to ensure their safety.

Ikea’s self provided access to cheap illegally logged wood

Ikea is the largest manufacturer of wooden furniture world wide. Besides that, Ikea is also the biggest buyer of Ukrainian wood. VGSM is an example and one of many Ukrainian wood suppliers that supplies exclusively to Ikea. In 1992 VGSM was founded to supply Ikea with wood. In doing so, Ikea is able to price pressure the wood suppliers market who all have to compete with one another. Want to learn more? Earthsight has come out with a Youtube video that perfectly explains the greenwashing case of Ikea and everything that’s happening with the illegal deforestation in Ukraine.

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