Green with Envy

Businesses Lie to Customers About Their Sustainability

graphic by Alexandria Valencia

graphic by Alexandria Valencia

Norah Hussaini, commentary editor

When Starbucks made the choice to release a “strawless lid” in 2018, it certainly wasn’t anything groundbreaking. From a multi-billion dollar company, most expected much more– maybe a program to raise large amounts of awareness or a substantial donation to a climate-based charity. Nevertheless, it was still a step in the right direction– a step in a climate-positive direction. Fewer Starbucks straws would go into the oceans, and pollution would be lessened. However marginal the decrease may be, many thought this meant less plastic would be used. 


Unfortunately, in this case, the promise of using less plastic was simply a way to make patrons of the company feel more at ease and more climate-aware. Even though Starbucks claimed the strawless lid was going to decrease plastic use, more plastic was actually used in the strawless lids than the previous lid and straw combination, but the information was not advertised as part of the campaign. This kind of misleading advertisement is known as greenwashing, a tactic that many companies use to assuage concerns about their role in adding to the rapidly accelerating effects of climate change. By doing this, businesses are able to promote themselves as “climate conscious” and “environmentally friendly” for marketing purposes while making little to no effort towards changing their usual practices.


Starbucks is not the only perpetrator of greenwashing; other huge corporations such as H&M, Zara, Nestlé, Exxon, and Volkswagen have also blatantly lied about their climate goals. For example, in 2019, Volkswagen admitted to cheating on emissions tests by adding a device to make the car seem to emit less during product testing. Following the conclusion of the tests, the device was removed which allowed the cars to emit higher amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than customers thought. 


Other companies have simply tried to distract customers from their negative environmental impact by claiming to have climate conscious products. H&M, one of the biggest fast fashion giants in the world, started a ‘Conscious’ line, advertising that the clothes had climate benefits. In reality, the line used more synthetic material than their normal line and was only a fraction of the products the company sells.  Similarly, Nestlé announced in an ambitious campaign that it was aiming to eliminate all of its nonreusable or non-recyclable products by 2025. However, Nestlé has been among the top five plastic polluting companies in the world for the past four years, according to Break Free From Plastic. 


The companies’ deception of customers has helped the businesses make more money though. According to a study from Businesswire, people are 78% more likely to buy a product if it is labeled as environmentally friendly. Time and time again, large corporations like this prove that the only reason they have eco-friendly initiatives is to deceive customers into buying their products in a ploy to rake in more profit for themselves.


Although the lies and deceit of companies such as Volkswagen, Starbucks, and Nestlé are egregious, the acts of corporations like ExxonMobil may be considered far worse. ExxonMobil has consistently ranked in the top 10 on the list of top 100 producers of greenhouse gas emissions according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Also, the behemoth company placed fifth on the 2021 list of the 90 companies responsible for two-thirds of climate change, on the report of However, ExxonMobil has historically placed blame on the consumer in order to gloss over the fact that they are one of the least environmentally conscious companies in the world. In 2007 and 2008, Exxon put out ads praising the “energy-saving consumers” of the world– those who limit and consider their electricity consumption, use heating and cooling sparingly in their homes, and seek to maximize the miles per gallon of gas in their car. While encouraging citizens to be conscious about turning off the lights before they leave home, the company continued to do nothing substantial about their carbon impact. 


Another example of companies misplacing blame is the concept of the carbon footprint. The consumer’s carbon footprint is the summation of the gas emissions created as a byproduct of their actions such as driving a car, using electricity or turning on the heater, even buying unsustainable clothing. At the beginning of the 21st century, British Petroleum hired Ogilvy and Mather, a PR agency, to promote the term “carbon footprint” and associate the term with the individual consumer, according to the Guardian. This allowed for large businesses to avoid taking accountability for their own massive amount of carbon emissions. Ogilvy and Mather were successful. People became so distracted with accusing one another of having a larger carbon footprint, that they forgot the real villains were not their neighbors or coworkers but rather the large corporations responsible for mass pollution. The power of the phrase continues to thrive today, unfairly targeting the miniscule actions of people who don’t have the power to reduce emissions by hundreds of millions of tons and letting greedy oil giants off the hook.


In order to make any progress in the short window of time left to reverse climate change, the companies most responsible for climate change will need to make changes starting immediately. Larger goals need to be set using stricter language that does not allow for loopholes and mistakes. Companies will need to be honest with the consumers and themselves as to how much they have contributed to the growing environmental problem. Other corporations that try to market “green” lines or “eco” products need to realize that even the best version of their product may still be extremely harmful to the environment. Small carbon reductions and fractional minimization of harmful materials is not an option anymore. Companies can no longer put off taking action to reduce their impact on the environment. The climate crisis is no longer coming – it’s already here.