How greenwashing undermines Kenya’s fight against pollution

Sprite soda drink bottle littered on the ground. Photo Cleanup Kenya

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing can simply be defined as a form of misleading marketing spin often employed by corporations whose actions may be interpreted to be environmental crimes. Those who engage in greenwashing often act on their own or in collusion with private individuals, other organisations, and even governments, non-governmental organisations and multilateral organizations. The purpose of greenwashing is to influence the public into believing that an organization actions on the planet are environmentally sound. Jay Westerveld is often credited with the invention of this term back in 1986.

Some of the leading corporations that have been accused of greenwashing include Chevron, British Petroleum and ExxonMobil in the energy sector, Nestle and Coca-Cola in the food and beverage sector, and many fashion brands which are engaged in various environmental crimes around the world.

Many of the environmental crimes committed by these corporations can largely be categorized as contributing to pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.

While the practice of greenwashing is not new globally, there has been increased activity in the last few decades as environmental problems become more pronounced and the public, investors and media scrutiny increase. Greenwashing has therefore become the biggest threat to sustainable development.

Some ways in which greenwashing is employed may include subtle methods such as misleading labelling to more aggressive misdirection ventures including setting up organizations to undermine legislation through lobbying, financing and fake reporting. Other ways include infiltration of civil societies and other government organizations to push greenwashing agendas.

Greenwashing ultimate goal is to use capitalism to derail sustainability legislation, hoodwink the public, media and investors, and ultimately cause more environmental problems for the planet.

Why do corporations greenwash?

One of the reasons why companies greenwash is because the benefits are huge with costs being very low or nonexistent. For example, it is more profitable for beverage corporations to claim the reason why they are not switching from PET bottles back to returnable glass bottles is because glass production contributes more to greenhouse emissions than PETs while being totally blind to the fact that only about 10 per cent of produced PETs are ever recycled. In truth, however, the corporations are only interested in disposable packaging because they don’t want to worry about maintaining an infrastructure for recovering and processing returnable glasses.

Another reason is greenwashing is largely only considered immoral but not illegal. This gives corporations a lot of legroom to wiggle around.

Antonio Vives, a sustainability consultant and professor at Stanford University and a promoter of the term “SDG greenwashing”, has observed that the 17 SDG and 169 indicators are themselves to blame since almost ‘anything that companies have been doing and will do can be said to contribute to the achievement of some SDG. This is a fertile ground for greenwashing’.

For this reason, a corporation like Coca-Cola can claim to contribute to sustainable management of natural resources simply because their employees participate in community tree planting activities thus fulfilling requirements of SDG 12.2 or to sponsor a few community cleanups and therefore claim to be substantially working to reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse as envisioned in SDG 12.5.

On the aggregate, however, greenwashing is simply driven by shortsightedness, greed and capitalism and may not be in the best long-term interests of the corporations.

Greenwashing in Kenya

Discussions on greenwashing in Kenya are very limited, even within the civil society movements. One of the reasons for this is because civil society work on the environment is still growing. For example, it is only in 2021 that the civil movement began efforts to find a unified voice to the issue of plastics pollution in the country.

Media reporting on this subject is also nonexistent. There is also no legal framework against greenwashing in the country. This means the public has very limited information on how to spot greenwashing and stop it. This, therefore, implies that corporations have had a field day in greenwashing activities.

A simple example of greenwashing in the country is when a corporation like Coca-Cola sponsors token community cleanups so as to appear as if they are doing something about plastic pollution while continuing to produce millions of plastic bottles which continue to choke the environment. Perhaps the most blatant example of greenwashing by the company is the green Sprite bottle. The bottle has the universal recycle label yet the company has known for many years that coloured bottles are harder to recycle into clear bottles through the widely mechanical recycling process making their usability almost single use. It is only in 2019 that the company announced that it was making the switch to a clear bottle in western Europe and Asia but continues to sell millions of sodas in these bottles here in Kenya.

A more complex example of greenwashing is when an organisation such as the Kenya Association of Manufacturers sets up structural organisations to slow down legislation on extended producer responsibilities. These organisations then engage in lobbying, questionable programs, media campaigns and fake recycling reporting without substantially addressing the root problem of packaging pollution on the environment.

An example of greenwashing in reporting is when in 2019 Petco Kenya and Coca-Cola through an elaborate media campaign, announced that they had increased the recycling of plastics bottles in the country to 30% without any verifiable data to back their claims when such recycling globally is less than 10 %.

Greenwashing has no place in Kenya

In conclusion, corporations that are often seen as the main culprits of greenwashing are increasingly making heavy investments to realise their goals using sophisticated tactics. A local daily reported in 2019 that Coca-Cola was investing several billions of shillings in Petco Kenya, a greenwashing purpose entity. Unfortunately, there is no tracking of greenwashing activity in the country and any legal remedies for this kind of behavior are largely lacking.

Let me suggest a few ways Kenya can guard against greenwashing.

The first place to start is to establish the extent to which greenwashing is prevalent in the country, how this undermines public policy, the cost this has on the environment, and how this affects vulnerable communities.

Secondly, we need to develop a national system with legislative and policy remedies to this complex problem. Establishing some sort of an independent greenwashing index that rewards good behaviour and shames culprits may be helpful. A recently validated national Extended Producer Responsibility legislation will help address some of these issues.

Lastly is advocacy. The media, civil society and the public can help guard against the harms greenwashing can cause the country through advocacy. The youth can particularly lead this through clicktivism.

Our resources are limited and we need to sustainably use them without causing many problems to present and future generations. It is important that corporations are constantly reminded about this and held accountable when they err. It is not just critical in areas of pollution but also in the management of biomass stocks like water and plant outputs. Sustainable utility of land is also important. So are areas of energy consumption and greenhouse emissions.

This article was written by Betterman Simidi, Founder & Patron, Clean Up Kenya and is republished from Cleanup Kenya website. It was first published on April 13, 2021. To support their conservation work kindly visit their website



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James Wakibia

James Wakibia

Environmental Activist and Photojournalist. Read my new series of Eco-Interviews here.