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A different kind of greenwashing (first post of a new column entitled “Sustainability & Bullshit”)

This is the first post of a new column I am calling Sustainability and Bullshit. Bullshit (BS) is my term for statements, texts, propositions, on sustainability or ESG in a broad sense that cannot be tested for truth by the reader with a reasonable or rational effort. This definition of BS is based on that of Princeton sociologist Harry G. Frankfurt. 

I will present examples in this column that – it is important to me! – could be BS. I am not saying that they are. But they already have the flavor of BS if, as in many cases, they defy scrutiny because one encounters contrary and contradictory statements on the web with every further step in one’s research, or because the place and timing of publication (e.g., near or in promotional contexts) suggests that something is not quite right with the statement or text. Excluded from this are counterintuitive statements that contradict the beliefs of David Volksmund and yet are true.

My daughter brought me a magazine from the organic supermarket cornershop, an Austrian product called Biorama, which comes across differently from the advertising brochures one usually sees (more on this below). On P. 33pp is an article*, which already due to its presentation e.g. the first side with nothing but a slogan, which looks like advertising: “Packagings from plastic harm the climate. Glass or paper are better for the environment.” Smaller font: “Do you think so? If you haven’t been taken in by a fairy tale …”. Then on the next page, the statement: “The fact is: most packaging made of plastic has less impact on the climate than the alternatives made of glass or metal.” In the style of an informative article, a few statistical figures are listed, but without sources. Among other things, it says that packaging accounts for only one percent of our climate footprint, there’s a “Did you know that …” section, and also the note “Support recycling. Dispose of plastic packaging properly.”

Who is the author of the article? Is it an article from the magazine Biorama, or is it an advertising contribution in disguise from the plastics industry? If the latter were the case, then the article would have to be marked as advertising, which is not the case. On the other hand, in a magazine with well-researched, in most cases non-promotional articles, it is noticeable that this article was either poorly researched because it does not contain any sources, or it is not an editorial article at all.

It doesn’t matter to me whether plastic packaging really has a smaller footprint than glass or metal packaging. That may be so. What bothers me is that the article is not clearly identifiable as a promotional piece from the plastics industry, i.e., presumably bullshit, or an editorial piece. 

Consumer education is a key element in enforcing sustainability. Precisely because many issues are complex, and in many cases, there can also be no clear decision in favor of one or the other behavior or process, it is important that the places where consumers are informed are kept free of greenwashing or camouflage motives of conventional industries. Therefore, if the post is targeted “information” from the plastic packaging industry, Biorama, if only in its own interest, should take care to label the post as an advertising post. If it is not an advertisement from the plastic packaging industry, then the article is poorly researched and does not belong in a magazine that deliberately puts sustainable life style on the cover page.

*Unfortunately, the article is not available in English. As greenwashing is a global universal, the article as such is of less relevance than what it (presumably) stands for: bullshitting consumers.

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