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Abstract

The number of companies issuing green claims over the last several years has increased dramatically as consumers and companies are paying more attention to their environmental footprint. Repeatedly, corporations are accused of greenwashing on websites that house such forums. The purpose of this paper is to begin to evaluate the fairness of the critical public’s greenwashing accusations through a study of environmental criticisms against a company. This paper presents the first comprehensive framework for evaluating whether organizations are engaging in greenwashing, which can be useful to both scholars and professional communicators. Recommendations for studies about greenwashing are also presented.
Public Relations Journal Vol. 5, No. 3
ISSN 1942-4604
© 2011 Public Relations Society of America
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A Critical Analysis of Greenwashing Claims
Tiffany Derville Gallicano, Ph.D.
The number of companies issuing green claims over the last several years has
increased dramatically as consumers and companies are paying more attention to their
environmental footprint. Repeatedly, corporations are accused of greenwashing on
websites that house such forums. The purpose of this paper is to begin to evaluate the
fairness of the critical public’s greenwashing accusations through a study of
environmental criticisms against a company. This paper presents the first
comprehensive framework for evaluating whether organizations are engaging in
greenwashing, which can be useful to both scholars and professional communicators.
Recommendations for studies about greenwashing are also presented.
LITERATURE REVIEW
On Earth Day 1990, millions of people joined together around the country to protest the
rapidly declining health of our planet, forcing corporations to realize that even the
average Joe had started to take an interest in the well-being of the environment.
Predictably, the level of “greenwashing” has spiked sharply since that eventful Earth
Day. (Deen, 2002, para. 1)
Greenwashing is “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental
practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service”
(Greenpeace, n.d.). The term greenwashing developed as people identified
inconsistencies between companies’ actual behavior and claims about being green.
Perhaps due to heightened attention to the issue in the past few years, the number of
products that avoid greenwashing according to TerraChoice’s (2010) standards appears
to have increased by about 3.5% between 2007 and 2010. A critical group of people
(referred to in this study as the “critical public”) has identified greenwashing examples
and has shared critiques through YouTube, blogs, and websites that focus on
recognizing and stopping greenwashing.
Various guidelines exist for identifying greenwashing in organizations’ promotional
campaigns. Organizations that have produced greenwashing criteria include
Greenpeace (n.d.), EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon (2009),
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (2009), and the Committee of Advertising
Practice (2009). The first two of these organizations provide space for the critical public
to accuse organizations of greenwashing and express opinions about whether
greenwashing has occurred and why. The reviews and rankings posted to these
websites are based on the perceptions of the critical public. This raises the question of
how the critical public’s perceptions would differ from the assessments of an
independent party. How fair are the critical public’s accusations? This study
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acknowledges that answering this question is a matter of opinion. Nevertheless, it is
useful to discover the extent to which an independent researcher agrees with the
environmental criticisms that the critical public has made.
This study of Starbucks Corporation involves an examination of its sustainability record,
its green claims, blog posts, comments by the critical public, and the organization’s
response to online criticisms. A framework for assessing greenwashing claims was
created for this study by integrating greenwashing frameworks from four organizations
(see appendix). This study is significant because it is the first academic study to present
an integrated framework for assessing greenwashing claims and because it is the first
academic study to interrogate the fairness of environmental criticisms based on
independent research.
Corporations are powerful enough to influence legislation and get away with
questionable business practices that benefit them (Kim & Dutta, 2009; Munshi & Kurian,
2005; Rampton & Stauber, 2002). However, there are also businesses that understand
that their success depends on good relationships with internal and external
stakeholders (Toth, 2007). Stakeholders’ views of corporations may fall somewhere
along a spectrum spanning from the belief that corporations tend to be deceitful (getting
away with socially detrimental practices while spinning a different story for the public)
(e.g., Kim & Dutta, 2009; Rampton & Stauber, 2002) to the belief that successful
corporations tend to be built on meaningful relationships (openness, honesty, and
transparency) (e.g., Grunig, 1992; Toth, 2007). Underlying views about the nature of
businesses can influence people’s beliefs about whether companies engage in
greenwashing.
The notion of greenwashing was born from a critical view of companies’ environmental
responsibility and focuses on why the public should be skeptical of companies’ green
claims. The term was coined in the 1980s by Jay Westerveld who saw the inconsistency
in hotels that didn’t have recycling programs but encouraged the reuse of towels
(Romero, 2008). Westerveld accused hotels of making false claims about being
environmentally responsible because hotels only adopted environmentally responsible
practices that would reduce costs.
The concern that environmentally friendly practices are motivated by saving money
rather than by saving the environment persists today (Bivins, 2009; Laufer, 2003).
Melillo, Miller, and Solman (2006) explained, “No matter how genuinely concerned
these companies might be, it’s unlikely they’d be pursuing this angle if there weren’t
profit to be had.” In attempt to counter this perspective, some companies donate profits
from conservation efforts to charity. For example, several hotels have signs that tell
guests that money saved from reusing towels will be donated to charity (personal
communication with Stuart Levy, assistant professor from George Washington
University’s Department of Tourism & Hospitality Management in the School of
Business, June 10, 2009). It is still possible that the critical public would also discount
charitable effort as being solely motivated by profit.
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Organizations have been able to portray themselves as environmental stewards
because consumers have limited information regarding organizations’ operations and
their sustainable business practices (Lyon, 2006). Critics are concerned that behind the
splashy campaigns, little is actually being done to protect the environment (Bivins,
2009). Even independently published information is influenced by the quotes, statistics,
and other information a company provides to a journalist (Herman & Chomsky, 2002).
Notably, however, journalists have suggested that news provided by companies is
infrequently used and when it is used, it is subjected to significant scrutiny or it is
confined to special sections, features, and signed columns (Curtin, 1999). Curtin noted
that shoestring news operations in her study relied more heavily on public relations
sources. Given the date of the study and given the plummeting budgets of news
organizations, this is an important caveat.
In many cases, consumers have lacked power when they act as individuals (Kim &
Dutta, 2009). With today’s technology, however, individuals can use new media to
collectively voice questions and complaints (Stephens & Malone, 2009), which can
disrupt the predominant one-way communication landscape that Cheney and
Dionisopolous lamented in 1989. Wright and Hinson (2008) surveyed 328 public
relations practitioners and noted “a recurring suggestion that… social media have had a
huge impact moving public relations into the direction of facilitating more two-way
communication by opening up direct channels of communications between
organizations and their publics” (p. 19). Nevertheless, there is still substantial room for
improvement as organizations learn to use online tools for two-way communication
(Gomez & Chalmeta, 2011; McCorkindale, 2010).
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of corporate social responsibility and are
expecting more information and disclosure from companies. The information technology
age has had a profound impact on the flow of information. The control of information
resides with individuals rather than companies (Li & Bernoff, 2008). Customers have the
power of social networking at their fingertips, which can be more influential and potent
to a business than its competitors (Rainey, 2008).
According to Rawlins (2009), companies have three obligations to be transparent. First,
companies must present accurate, substantial, and useful information. Second,
companies must listen to stakeholders to discover the information they need. Third,
companies must provide objective, balanced information about their activities and
policies.
With regard to Rawlins’ (2009) guidelines, it is essential that organizations provide ways
for consumers to verify the accuracy of environmental claims (Vos, 2009; Ramus &
Montiel, 2005). Some experts also recommend that organizations disclose quantitative
measures of air emissions, water pollution, hazardous waste disposal, energy
consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions (Etsy & Winston, 2006). Rawlins also
stated that companies must meet the standard of substantial completeness, a term
originally conceptualized by Klaidman and Beauchamp (1987). According to this
standard, “a reasonable person’s requirements for information are satisfied” (Rawlins,
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2009, p. 74). Rawlins added, “The key to obtaining substantial completeness is knowing
what your audience needs to know” (p. 74).
In a quest for information, consumers look for authenticity in companies’ marketing and
environmental claims. As more companies have adopted green campaigns, “consumers
are growing increasingly confused over what it means to be ‘green’” (Melillo et al.,
2006). It is not just the consumers who are confused; branding experts are finding it
difficult to issue green marketing because of the public outcry over greenwashing
(Melillo et al., 2006). “This lack of connection between what companies are doing and
how they are perceived threatens to weaken relationships between brands and
consumers,” commented Kanter (2009).
It is apparent that the overuse of green marketing campaigns has created confusion for
both consumers and companies. It is “impossible to judge how significant the
disconnect is between public statements of compliance or social responsibility and a
firm’s genuine efforts particularly without external third party verification and
monitoring” (Laufer, 2003, p. 257). Websites that host greenwashing accusations
amplify the issue when they are not refereed by an independent party. Complicating the
confusion about the veracity of greenwashing claims is the fact that no standards exist
regarding corporate social responsibility (CSR) reporting formats or auditing
requirements (Laufer, 2003).
It is important to investigate the fairness of environmental criticisms, as well as the
rationale the critical public uses to criticize companies that brand themselves as
environmentally friendly. No studies could be found that analyzed the critical public’s
accusations of greenwashing. It is also important to discover and analyze how
organizations engage with publics online regarding environmental criticisms (Bortree,
2011). To begin to understand these issues, this study focuses on all greenwashing
claims that have been made against Starbucks on a website dedicated to greenwashing
claims by EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon (2009). The
following questions were investigated:
RQ 1: What types of justifications do the critical public use when criticizing
Starbucks (e.g., research and facts, the company’s reputation, their own
deep-seated beliefs regarding the company or industry)?
RQ 2: How fair is the critical public’s criticism in the case chosen for this
study?
RQ 3: How does Starbucks engage with publics online regarding the
environmental criticisms that are examined in this study?
METHOD
The case of Starbucks was chosen for this study because it is a large public company
that has made a commitment to corporate social responsibility but has also received a
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fair amount of criticism. It was also chosen because it is an organization with a strong
online presence. A search for “Starbucks” was conducted on the two websites that are
dedicated places for the critical public to make greenwashing accusations. Greenpeace
(n.d.) had no greenwashing accusations against Starbucks; however, five
communication efforts about Starbucks were analyzed on the greenwashing website by
EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon (2009).
For each of the five communication efforts, all comments posted to the greenwashing
website were examined. If the criticized communication effort was a video, it was also
located on YouTube, and all comments on the particular YouTube Web page were
analyzed. Finally, the name of each of the five Starbucks campaigns was typed into
Google, and all blog posts that were found within the first 10 results were analyzed,
including each blog post’s comments and trackbacks. A trackback is a link that appears
on a blog post to another blog post that links to it. All of this content was used to answer
the first research question about the type of justification the critical public uses when
criticizing Starbucks. This search resulted in an analysis of 144 pieces of audience
communication about the five criticized communication efforts regarding Starbucks.
For the second research question about the fairness of the criticism, the five Starbucks
communication efforts that the critical public had analyzed were examined, in addition to
the critical public’s reactions, which were based on the data collected for the first
research question. In some cases, more needed to be learned about a critical public’s
objection. In these cases, key words from the criticism were entered into Google and all
documents within the first two pages of Google results were examined. The information
that was found was also included in the discussion about the fairness of the criticism.
In addition, Starbucks’ online information about its operations was examined, including
its CSR reports. To aid in the research, a comprehensive greenwashing framework was
developed to compare and contrast the critical public’s environmental criticisms with
Starbucks’ online information and CSR reports (see appendix). The greenwashing
framework integrates the greenwashing criteria from the following organizations:
Greenpeace (n.d.), EnviroMedia Social Marketing and University of Oregon (2009),
TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (2009), and the Committee of Advertising
Practice (2009). For each of the five Starbucks communication efforts, an analysis was
conducted of each type of greenwashing criticism that a critical public mentioned. In the
results section, the fairness of one of the critical public’s comments is highlighted from
each type of criticism for each Starbucks communication effort. In line with Rawlins’
(2009) discussion about the requirements for transparency, the burden of proof was
placed on the company to provide evidence for the green claims it makes and to provide
answers to people’s comments about needing information.
The third research question was about Starbucks’ engagement with publics online
regarding the criticisms examined in this study. This research question was investigated
by looking for online responses from Starbucks. In addition, information was gathered
from a Starbucks presentation given at Edelman’s third annual New Media Academic
Summit (see Wheeler, 2009).
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Starbucks Overview
Starbucks (2011a), one of the world’s most prominent coffee brands and retail outlets,
was founded in 1971 in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. The company’s mission is “to
inspire and nurture the human spirit one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a
time.” Starbucks operates in all 50 states and in 43 international countries for a total of
nearly 17,000 company-operated or licensed stores. Due to its size and presence in the
marketplace, activists have targeted the company for various issues such as fair trade,
labor practices, genetically modified food, and greenwashing. Starbucks is a mature
company that has developed values for business practices. For example, in addition to
its corporate mission statement, Starbucks (2005) has the following environmental
mission statement: “Starbucks is committed to a role of environmental leadership in all
facets of our business” through commitments of:
“Understanding environmental issues and sharing information with our partners
Developing innovative and flexible solutions to bring about change
Striving to buy, sell and use environmentally friendly products
Recognizing that fiscal responsibility is essential to our environmental future
Instilling environmental responsibility as a corporate value
Measuring and monitoring our progress for each project
Encouraging all partners to share in our mission”
RESULTS
Starbucks Shared Planet CSR Effort
The first communication effort is called Starbucks Shared Planet, which is a CSR effort
based on “sourcing our coffee ethically, acting as good stewards of the environment,
and being actively involved in our communities” (Starbucks, 2011b, para. 1).
One place the effort was announced was on My Starbucks Idea (2010), which is a
website where customers can make suggestions to Starbucks and vote on each other’s
suggestions. Most online reactions that were examined in response to the Starbucks
Shared Planet announcement were entirely positive. Of the responses by the critical
public, most people genuinely applauded the effort and then either noted important work
still to be done or made a jab about Starbucks’ environmental impact. Only a handful of
people were entirely negative. Nearly all criticisms were based on research and facts or
the need for clear research and facts, and one criticism also considered Starbucks’
reputation as a balancing factor against cynicism.
To judge the fairness of the criticisms, each one was inductively matched to a criterion
found in the framework for analyzing greenwashing (see appendix). One criterion from
the framework that was expressed was that “a product may be ‘green’ but distracts from
the environmental impacts of the category.” For example, after complimenting
Starbucks for its Shared Planet initiative, a member of the critical public added:
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I would like to remind you, however, that recycling is not going to be the
ultimate answer to environmental sustainability. … I would challenge
Starbucks then to expand the goals of sustainability by attempting to
reduce the number of cups and other disposable products given out to
customers. (Liz, 2008, para. 1)
The commenter then acknowledged Starbucks’ discount of 10 cents for bringing in a
mug and said that up to 40 cents would be a more realistic incentive. People on other
websites suggested that 10 percent of the drink price would be fair.
The request for Starbucks to expand its goals by trying to reduce the number of cups
given out was unfair because this comment was made in response to Starbucks’ blog
post that included the goal to “have 25% of the cups used in our stores be reusable” by
2015 (Michelle, 2008). Clearly, Starbucks has a goal to reduce the number of cups
given out, although Starbucks (2011a) has recognized that it needs to do more to reach
its goal. Starbucks’ (2011a) progress report highlights the goal to serve 25 percent of
beverages made in the store in reusable cups by 2015 and states, “Although we served
6.4 million more beverages in reusable cups in 2010 than 2009, we will need
considerable innovation and customer engagement to reach our 2015 goal” (p. 9). On
the progress report, Starbucks labeled its reusable cups effort as “needs improvement”
(p. 9). Thus, it seems like the 10 cent discount is inadequate at the moment, at least
without additional efforts, so the general idea about doing a better job to reduce the
number of cups that are used is valid, although the exact criticism is unfair.
Another category of complaints from the greenwashing framework that is relevant to the
Starbucks Shared Planet effort is that “claims are poorly defined and misunderstood by
consumers.” Part of the Starbucks Shared Planet effort is a commitment to ethical
sourcing. Starbucks purchases Fair Trade coffee, as well as coffee that meets its own
C.A.F.E. standards. There was disagreement and confusion about the differences
between Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. standards and Fair Trade standards. For example, a
member of the critical public commented, “What they don’t discuss is how their Coffee
and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) standards compare to those of Fair Trade. C.A.F.E.
accounts for nearly 6 times as many pounds as Starbucks will purchase through Fair
Trade” (Jonat92, 2009, para. 1).
The commenter’s exact complaint is unfair because Starbucks compares Fair Trade
and C.A.F.E. standards in its 2005 CSR report (download available via Starbucks,
2011c). Nevertheless, Starbucks’ comparison of these standards is broad. A chart in the
CSR report describes the mission of Fair Trade as “sustainable development of
disadvantaged small-holder farmers of democratically organized cooperatives” and
describes the focus areas as “minimum price, social premium, labor and environmental
standards” (Starbucks, 2011c, p. 20). The report refers to http://www.fairtrade.net for
more information. In comparison, the CSR chart states that the mission of C.A.F.E.
practices is to “ensure the sustainable production of high-quality coffee by addressing
social, environmental and economic responsibility throughout the coffee supply chain”
(Starbucks, 2011c, p. 20). The focus areas are described as “coffee quality, social,
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environmental and economic responsibility” (Starbucks, 2011c, p. 20). The report refers
to http://www.scscertified.com/csrpurchasing/starbucks.html for more information. Both
websites that are listed as resources for more information provide complex information;
consequently, it is difficult to directly compare the two standards by using these
resources. A more detailed comparative analysis about the unique advantages and
disadvantages of each system is needed because the certification systems are
complex.
Starbucks explained why it doesn’t buy more coffee that is Fair Trade certified. Cindy
Hoots (2008) of the Global Responsibility department at Starbucks explained, “There
are many, many small farmers who also deserve access, but who don’t fit the Fair
Trade criteria.” She then told the story of a farmer and explained that his family would
not qualify for Fair Trade due to the size of the farm and due to the farm’s decision to
not participate in the cooperative. This blog post leaves out important differences
among the certifications, although presenting the differences was not the purpose of the
blog post.
To explore the general idea behind the commenter’s criticism, a Google search was
conducted with the following search terms: “C.A.F.E. standards compare Fair Trade.”
The blog posts and comments that resulted from this search expressed confusion and
disagreement over how C.A.F.E. standards and Fair Trade standards differ. For
example, an author at change.org wrote, “I, myself, have trouble figuring out what these
standards really entail, and Dean even points out that the standards ‘are pretty
mysterious, and most Starbucks people will readily admit they don’t fully understand
them’” (Patriana, 2008). Patriana (2008) had Rodney North, a representative from a Fair
Trade company, compare C.A.F.E. and Fair Trade standards on her blog post.
North explained that with C.A.F.E. standards, you don’t know if the coffee in your bag
was grown and traded in a particular way because Starbucks says that a percentage of
its beans are purchased under C.A.F.E. standards but does not label the C.A.F.E.
coffee bags separately (Patriana, 2008). Although this criticism is valid right now,
Starbucks plans to have all of its coffee sourced through C.A.F.E. practices, Fair Trade,
or another externally audited system by 2015 (Starbucks, 2011a). On the other hand,
there are differences among these standards, so unless there is a specially labeled
coffee, Starbucks customers won’t know whether their coffee is ethically sourced
through C.A.F.E., Fair Trade, or another system, and some customers could care about
the differences. For example, greenlagirl (2005) wrote
Almost all of CAFE practices are just ‘recommendations,’ not requirements. Compare
that to the tough environmental standards REQUIRED for fair trade certification. …I’m
glad that Starbucks is at least taking steps toward these goals. But I’m really peeved at
the misinformation that Starbucks spreads.
North also noted, “While I personally think that the C.A.F.E. system has actually
motivated coffee growers to improve their practices it’s hard to know due to the opacity
of the C.A.F.E. system” (Patriana, 2008, para. 8). Similar to greenlagirl’s (2005
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comment, North explained that C.A.F.E. is based on a point system “that makes most
anything optional, so long as you score high in another area” (Patriana, 2008, para. 8).
Fair trade, on the other hand, makes it clear that you either meet certain requirements
or you don’t. An examination of the generic scorecard for C.A.F.E. reveals that there are
seven zero tolerance criteria out of 210 criteria for C.A.F.E. standards (Scientific
Certification Systems, 2011).
Other key differences identified by North include the “negligible” amount of credit given
to growers by Starbucks, as compared to fulfillment of all requests from growers in
advance for affordable credit through Equal Exchange (North’s Fair Trade employer);
whether the source of the coffee is a small farmer cooperative; and the payment
structure (Patriana, 2008). Whereas Fair Trade growers get a definite price if they meet
fixed criteria, Starbucks has created a “virtuous competition” in which coffee growers
compete to have the most C.A.F.E. points. Those with the most points are at the front of
the line to sell to Starbucks. North pointed out that some growers could improve, but if
they were not among the best, they would not get to sell to Starbucks, and their
environmental and social efforts would not necessarily be economically rewarded. North
criticizes Starbucks, explaining
Whereas Fair Trade importers are consciously committing to paying growers more to
make social and environmental improvements possible, Starbucks has devised a way
to, in essence, outsource that extra burden on the growers themselves. If they to sell to
STBX they just need to dig deeper, or try harder, than the other growers, but they can’t
count on a higher price for their coffee to offset these investments or efforts. (Patriana,
2008, para. 16)
With this argument, North accuses Starbucks of shifting the financial burden for greater
environmental and social efforts to farmers.
These differences between C.A.F.E. standards and Fair Trade standards have been
presented to demonstrate a comparison between Starbucks’ communication about the
differences between the standards and what others have communicated about the
differences between the standards. Although the environmental criticism about
Starbucks not providing a comparison between its certification and the Fair Trade
certification was found to be unfair because Starbucks addresses some of the
differences, the general idea behind the criticism is valid. Starbucks does not provide an
analysis of all of the important differences between the two systems.
A third category from the greenwashing framework that relates to this case is
“environmental claims that cannot be proven by data or third party verification.” For
example, a member of the critical public stated
It seems to me that [C.A.F.E. certification] is obviously their strategy to
avoid using Fairtrade products. The Fairtrade Foundation monitors and
guarantees the minimum ethical standards in all its schemes. But who is
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gonna monitor Starbucks’ Shared Planet? Starbucks itself? I can see a
problem here. (Cristina, 2008)
This criticism is unfair because Starbucks (2011a) has widely publicized online that its
C.A.F.E. certification is independently monitored, and the CSR reports that include this
fact are also verified by an independent company.
Bring in a Tumbler 365 Days a Year Video
This video shows the text “last year” and a woman who displays Starbucks cups on a
light brown wall. The words “365 cups” appear when she has placed the last cup on the
wall. The video cuts to the woman raising a tumbler in her hand. The text on the screen
says “This year:” and then the blank wall behind her shows that no cups will be used.
The video then shows a close-up of the tumbler in the woman’s hand and the following
text: “Bring in a tumbler. Save 10¢ and another paper cup every time.” At the end, a
Starbucks Shared Planet logo appears at the bottom that includes the words “Starbucks
Shared Planet. You and Starbucks. It’s bigger than coffee.”
An overwhelming number of responses to this video were positive. Many of the
comments on the YouTube website were not relevant to this analysis; for example, they
involved conversations to each other about what a tumbler is. Criticisms were focused
on the need for Starbucks to only offer mugs rather than cups for in-store customers
and the problem of wasting cups to create the advertisement. Thus, criticisms were
based on requests for change and observations.
Additional research about the request to only offer mugs for in-store customers was
conducted by entering “why doesn't Starbucks serve drinks in mugs?” into Google and
examining the first two pages of results. There was a vibrant conversation about this
topic in the search results. Below is one of the comments:
Starbucks could encourage customers to use the in-house washable cups,
but they don’t. Many years ago when I worked for Starbucks, we were
expressly told by our SM in our store to not encourage the use of the cups
and to keep them out of the visual line of sight for the customers coming in
to order. Since promoting myself to customer, I’ve had partners and shifts
look at me crazy when I *ask* to use an in-house, washable cup versus
disposable paper. Starbucks as environmentally conscious/friendly, my
a**. (all asterisks in original; HopkinsBella, 2007)
On the other hand, another employee wrote, “They are available. Secondly, most stores
have them in plain sight on the bar. …I cheerfully provide one if the customer asks for
one” (Deusx, 2007). Without supporting data though, the claim that “most stores offer
them in plain sight” is questionable. Other helpful comments were from Starbucks
employees and spouses who complained about the amount of waste that occurs behind
the Starbucks counter, such as the lack of effort to recycle “loads of gallon size plastic
milk bottles” (Marie, 2011). The best category in the greenwashing framework to
describe this line of criticism is that “the company promotes environmental efforts or
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achievements, which could divert attention from its bigger environmental problems.”
This line of criticism is valid because it is inauthentic for Starbucks stores to promote its
concern for cup waste while not doing more to encourage the use of its free in-store
cups. Consistent, visible placement of in-store cups, signage, and other
communications to educate customers about this option are needed.
The second criticism of the tumbler advertisement was that cups were wasted to create
the message. As pointed out by other people who responded to this criticism, one can
see that the cups that appear in the video have already been used because stains can
be seen on the outside of them. Thus, the criticism is unfair.
Green Umbrellas for a Green Cause Promotion
Another Starbucks communication that appears on the greenwashing website is the
Green Umbrellas for a Green Cause promotion. One version of the promotion has the
words “Starbucks Green Umbrellas. Stand for Something Greener,” along with a circular
logo with an umbrella on the inside and the following words on the outside: “Green
Umbrellas for a Green Cause.” An online summary of the promotion features the same
logo and has the following additional words:
To benefit Global Green USA, some of your favorite celebrities are
designing, painting and transforming Starbucks umbrellas into original
works of art reflecting the theme “Be Green This Summer.” Umbrellas will
be on auction beginning May 21, 2007. Learn more. (“Green Umbrellas,”
2007)
In addition, the green umbrellas promotion included a $25,000 donation by Starbucks to
Global Green USA, which is an organization that advocates solutions to global warming.
Most of the responses to this campaign were positive. The negative comments were
based on direct or indirect observations. A member of the critical public wrote
I love to see the big guys like Starbucks making the move to be greener…
now if only The Big Green Mermaid would use recyclable hot cups. While
they are using cups with 10% post consumer material, their cups are not
compostable or recyclable. A $20,000 donation to Global Green is nice but
let’s put that into perspective. It’s like you or me giving ten cents. I wish
they would pay more than lip service to being green. (Shipley, 2007)
This criticism fits the following greenwashing criterion: “The company promotes
environmental efforts or achievements, which could divert attention from its bigger
environmental problems.” At the time this comment was made in 2007, it was arguably
fair because of the problem with cups; however, the criticism would not be fair if it had
been made today because of Starbucks’ (2011a) goal to “develop comprehensive
recycling solutions for our paper and plastic cups by 2012.” Starbucks has already taken
actions towards this goal, such as testing cup recycling in a New York pilot project.
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Starbucks Seasons Video and Starbucks Cup Waste Video
These last two communications efforts related to Starbucks that were found on the
greenwashing website are grouped together because they have an important similarity.
Both videos were created as student projects, and members of the critical public
mistakenly thought the videos were created by Starbucks. The descriptions of the
videos on their original YouTube locations reveals that the videos were both student
projects. As such, criticizing Starbucks for videos it did not create is unfair. The
criticisms posted to the videos were based on a request for information and an
observation about cup waste.
Starbucks’ Response and Strategy
The final research question is about Starbucks’ response to the environmental criticisms
that were examined in this study. This research question refers to official responses by
Starbucks spokespeople, as opposed to anonymous employees who frequently share
their opinions on blog posts that discuss Starbucks. At Edelman’s third annual New
Media Academic Summit, Wheeler (2009), director of digital strategy for Starbucks,
discussed Starbucks’ online strategy for communicating with publics. She stated that
Starbucks “is ready and actively engaged in conversation on any topic.” She said that at
the same time, Starbucks does not have the staff power to talk about every issue.
Consequently, Starbucks looks for the “zeitgeist” of conversations about the company
and responds. I asked Wheeler about why Starbucks had not responded to accusations
on greenwashing sites. She pointed to her earlier statement about focusing on the
zeitgeist of conversation due to staff power. She also noted that she read news about
greenwashing via Twitter that day and that perhaps responses to greenwashing sites
will be the next step in expanding Starbucks’ communication with online publics.
Wheeler said that Starbucks prioritizes the conversations that take place on Starbucks’
dedicated site for conversation, titled My Starbucks Idea (2010).
The research in this study confirms Wheeler’s (2009) description. Starbucks employees
appear to synthesize a large volume of comments and write new blog posts in response
to them on the My Starbucks Idea (2010) website (e.g., Hoots, 2008; Michelle, 2008).
On occasion, Starbucks posts replies to people in the comments section of its blog. For
example, Matthew Guiste (2008), director of global social media for Starbucks, wrote
the following comment response on a blog post about Starbucks Shared Planet:
Thanks for the note, UrbanVoy. Been a hectic week and you found it
before I could tell you about it! Yes, as a company we are very serious
about this topic and I think you’ll find the “sharp differences” become much
less so over the coming months. :)
This comment was made in response to a regular commenter who was pleased with
Starbucks’ announcement about coffee bean sourcing.
DISCUSSION
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF GREENWASHING CLAIMS Public Relations Journal
Vol. 5, No. 3, 2011
13
Most reactions to Starbucks’ efforts in this study were positive; even the critical public
tended to applaud Starbucks’ green initiatives while asking for more change, asking
critical questions, or making a jab about Starbucks’ environmental impact. When
Starbucks was criticized, the arguments used were nearly always based on facts,
observations, the need for more information, and requests for change, as opposed to
deep-seated cynicism against corporate America.
The fairness of the critical public’s accusations was mixed. In the cases highlighted in
this study, most of the exact criticisms were technically unfair because they asked
Starbucks to do things that Starbucks is already doing or criticized Starbucks for
advertisements that were actually student projects. Nevertheless, the general line of
criticism for a couple of the critical public’s comments was valid. Interestingly, other
people posting comments factually refuted two of the unfair criticisms. This
demonstrates that other people making comments could save a company the need to
factually correct accusations in some but not all cases. On the other hand, the public
needs information from official sources, and critical readers cannot necessarily trust or
hold other people accountable.
Starbucks only posted one comment in response to the discussions we examined, and
this comment was posted in response to someone who was applauding the company’s
efforts. Starbucks’ strategy is to focus on the zeitgeist of conversation. Based on the
data in this study, when Starbucks addresses people’s concerns, it tends to create a
new blog post on the My Starbucks Idea (2010) website, as opposed to responding
within the comments section of blog posts.
RECOMMENDATIONS
It’s important to recognize the range of quality in the critical public’s responses to a
company’s environmental communication. Members of the critical public should not
necessarily be ignored. They have legitimate requests for information and requests for
change, and some of them spread false information due to their own lack of research. In
some cases, other people corrected false perceptions in the comments sections of
blogs.
This study raises the question about when it is acceptable for an organization to not
provide information about itself when outsiders have offered that information online. In
some cases, Starbucks might not need to make a statement. For example, when a
commenter explained to a member of the critical public that the cups in a Starbucks’
video were used cups, Starbucks probably did not need to also make this point because
it was easy for the critical public to watch the video again and directly observe the
stained cups. In other cases, Starbucks might want to present information that others
have provided online. For example, Starbucks did an excellent job of providing
resources to an abundance of information online about C.A.F.E. certification and Fair
Trade certification; however, there was room for improvement in making the comparison
of these standards meaningful beyond broad characterizations. Other people online,
however, presented insightful comparisons of these standards, so in a sense, the
GallicanoPublic Relations Journal Vol. 5, No. 3, 2011
14
information was available, but it was not available from the company’s perspective. As a
consequence, interested readers were left with only a critical description of how
C.A.F.E. standards compare with Fair Trade standards. Qualitative audience research
is needed to discover whether Rawlins’ (2009) standard of substantial completeness is
fulfilled if information is available online but not from the organization itself.
A drawback about just focusing on the zeitgeist of conversation on an organization’s
own website is the potential loss of deep listening. An organization can engage in deep
listening by going beyond its own communication channels to listen to discussions
about itself. Some of the most interesting comments on other websites were posted by
employees who vigorously defended the organization or attacked it by revealing
personal experiences. These comments suggested inconsistencies in Starbucks’
practices and pointed to important areas of improvement. In addition to deep listening,
an organization should ideally comment back to people regularly on its own online sites,
as well as other sites that command significant conversation about the organization.
Directly engaging people by responding in the comments sections of blogs is likely a
more powerful relationship building strategy than only engaging people by writing fresh
blog posts that were inspired by comments.
This discussion also relates to an ongoing conversation in the public relations literature
about concern for publics who are not powerful enough to command an organization’s
attention. This concern was raised by critical scholars such as Karlberg (1996), Dozier
and Lauzen (2000), and more recently, Kim and Dutta (2009). Even if many
practitioners are using social media for symmetrical communication as suggested by
Wright and Hinson’s (2008) research, the question arises as to which publics
practitioners are engaging in online symmetrical communication with or better yet,
who are they not talking with online? Starbucks engages in significant online efforts yet
did not respond in the comments sections to any of the critical responses we reviewed.
Bivins (1993) argued that public relations practitioners have an obligation to lessen
confusion surrounding an organization and to present issues clearly for open debate by
the public. Furthermore, it is to the company’s advantage to substantiate its claims
because in doing so, it rhetorically diminishes the grounds for complaints that the critical
public has. C. M. Condit and D. M. Condit (1992) referred to this strategy as incremental
erosion.
LIMITATIONS
This study is just one case that begins to illuminate the fairness of greenwashing
accusations. This study is limited by the boundaries for the case that were selected.
There is a great deal of discussion about Starbucks’ CSR practices online; this study
shows just one sample of this discussion and should not be used for purposes of
generalization. Furthermore, the question of fairness is a matter of opinion, and others
could legitimately have different judgments. To the extent that space would allow,
verbatim comments and details of Starbucks’ practices were included in the results
section with the hope that readers can decide if they agree with this study’s
assessments about fairness or if they want to draw different conclusions.
A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF GREENWASHING CLAIMS Public Relations Journal
Vol. 5, No. 3, 2011
15
A weakness with using Web-based sources for the information in this case study is the
issue of accessibility. Although Internet accessibility is more robust today than during
the early days of the Internet, there is still a portion of the population that is not
connected to the Internet; therefore, they are not sharing their opinions and
perspectives in online communities. This study was limited to an exploration of the
opinions of online critical publics.
FUTURE RESEARCH
Additional research is needed about greenwashing. Some of the research questions
that should be explored include the following:
Under what conditions (if any) is it acceptable for companies to not provide
detailed information that is available in other places online?
Under what conditions should companies engage in green branding and under
what conditions should companies avoid green claims?
What meanings do various publics make of greenwashing accusations? How do
they make their own judgments about greenwashing accusations? What
influences the credibility of a greenwashing accusation?
What are the effects of accusing an organization of greenwashing or witnessing
an accusation of greenwashing on a public’s behavior toward the organization?
What are the critical public’s reactions to attempts to ameliorate greenwashing
accusations, such as hotels that donate money saved from reuse of towels to
nonprofit organizations?
CONCLUSION
This study demonstrates how easy it is for a company to be criticized for promoting its
environmental efforts according to the framework for analyzing greenwashing.
Companies could show improvement with their environmental efforts, but they could still
be accused of greenwashing if there is a perception that this green promotion distracts
from their overall environmental impact. Starbucks is considered by many as a leader in
corporate social responsibility and has provided an immense amount of information
about its sustainable business practices on its website; however, there were still some
legitimate criticisms about its environmental communication. Starbucks opens itself to
such criticism because it has chosen to brand itself as environmentally friendly. This
study can be used as an example for companies developing videos and Web content
related to environmental stewardship. In particular, organizations can use the
framework to help themselves avoid accusations. The framework for greenwashing can
also be used by scholars for future studies about environmental criticism.
GallicanoPublic Relations Journal Vol. 5, No. 3, 2011
16
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Appendix: Framework for Analyzing Greenwashing
This integrated framework is based on synthesizing the frameworks of Committee of
Advertising Practice (2008), Greenpeace (2009), EnviroMedia and the University of
Oregon (2009) and TerraChoice (2009).
THE
CLAIM:
Critical
Public
Company’s Website
SKELETON IN THE CLOSET
-The business is inherently dirty but touts
environmental initiatives
-The company promotes environmental efforts or
achievements, which could divert attention from its
bigger environmental problems
THE RIGHT HAND ISN’T TALKING TO THE LEFT
HAND
-The company claims a product is green based on a
few attributes without considering a full life cycle
analysis
-A product may be “green” but distracts from the
environmental impacts of the product category
MAGIC TRICKS
-Environmental claims are made that cannot be
proven by data or third party verification
LARGER THAN LIFE
-Environmental claims are overstated or exaggerated
MAY I HAVE THE DEFINITION PLEASE
-Claims are poorly defined and misunderstood by
consumers (e.g., natural)
-Claims contain confusing pseudo-scientific verbiage
LAW AND ORDER
-The company claims a product or activity is “green”
even though there are laws either restricting or
mandating such
-The company promotes “green” initiatives while
lobbying against environmental laws and regulations
TRUTH OR FICTION
-The company makes false claims
-The company gives the impression of third party
labels or endorsements, where none exist
-The company fails to acknowledge that an informed
debate exists
... Gallicano [23] created the first integrated framework based on synthesizing the methods by four organisations used for assessing greenwashing claims (Greenpeace, the En-viroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon, TerraChoice Environmental Marketing (now Underwriters Laboratory) and the Committee of Advertising Practice). The framework developed by Gallicano consisted of seven main themes: Skeleton in the closet; The Right hand isn't talking to the left hand; Magic Tricks, Larger than Life; May I have the definition please?; Law and order; and Truth and Fiction. ...
... In addition, a description of the meanings of each of these is provided alongside an explanation of their significance. This framework allowed comparisons and contrasts of the public environmental criticisms using the case of Starbucks' online information and corporate social responsibility reports (see appendix of Gallicano [23]). ...
... Taken together, these various evaluation tools and frameworks from both the academic literature and monitoring organisations provide a foundation for our work here. In addition to examining national guidelines on green marketing (e.g., [1,2,4]), in our framework we mostly draw on sources from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing [14]; EnviroMedia Social Marketing and the University of Oregon [16]; BSR & Futerra [17]; Gillespie [22]; Greenpeace [15]; Gallicano [23]; Lyon & Montgomery [11]; Parguel, Benoit-Moreau and Russell [25]; Berrone [26]; Scanlan [27]; Siano et al. [28]; Contreras-Pacheco and Claasen [29]; Zanasi et al. [24]; and Sourcewatch [18]. We discuss the integration of these ideas in the section that follows, seeking to build on their work with our assessment framework. ...
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In this paper we examine definitions of ‘greenwashing’ and its different forms, developing a tool for assessing diverse ‘green’ claims made by various actors. Research shows that significant deception and misleading claims exist both in the regulated commercial sphere, as well as in the unregulated non-commercial sphere (e.g., governments, NGO partnerships, international pledges, etc.). Recently, serious concerns have been raised over rampant greenwashing, in particular with regard to rapidly emerging net zero commitments. The proposed framework we developed is the first actionable tool for analysing the quality and truthfulness of such claims. The framework has widespread and unique potential for highlighting efforts that seek to delay or distract real solutions that are urgently needed today to tackle multiple climate and environmental crises. In addition, we note how the framework may also assist in the development of practices and communication strategies that ultimately avoid greenwashing.
... They used the following criteria in their assessment: the ad misleads with words; the ad misleads with visuals and/or graphics; the ad makes a green claim that is vague or seemingly unprovable; the ad overstates or exaggerates how green the product/company/service actually is; and the ad leaves out or masks important information, making the green claim sound better than it is. Gallicano (2011) created the first integrated framework based on synthesizing the methods four organizations used for assessing greenwashing claims: Greenpeace (2009) In addition a description of the meanings of each of these is provided alongside an explanation of their significance. This framework allowed comparisons and contrasts of the public environmental criticisms using the case of Starbucks' online information and corporate social responsibility reports (see appendix of Gallicano (2011). ...
... Gallicano (2011) created the first integrated framework based on synthesizing the methods four organizations used for assessing greenwashing claims: Greenpeace (2009) In addition a description of the meanings of each of these is provided alongside an explanation of their significance. This framework allowed comparisons and contrasts of the public environmental criticisms using the case of Starbucks' online information and corporate social responsibility reports (see appendix of Gallicano (2011). ...
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... El incremento progresivo en los últimos años de este tipo de acciones comerciales en cierto modo fraudulentas, al ofrecer a los consumidores productos o servicios realzando unas cualidades ecológicas mínimas o inexistentes, ha acabado provocando un creciente escepticismo sobre los reclamos verdes de las instituciones (Kim & Lyon, 2014;García-Lombardía, 2017;Salas-Canales, 2018). El incremento de la desconfianza o recelo de los consumidores hacia los productos que presumen de cualidades ecológicas, al ir descubriendo que algunos de ellos adolecen de determinadas bondades prometidas por las empresas que los producen y comercializan, y el aumento derivado de la confusión que genera prácticas ambiguas de comunicación (Gallicano, 2011;Tamburian, 2013;Aji & Sutikno, 2015), provoca que el greenwashing como estrategia fracase cuando se implementa y se mantiene en el largo plazo, ya que puede implicar la pérdida de confianza de los clientes hacia esos productos y empresas al dejar de confiar en sus políticas ambientales (Fuster & Ortega, 2010;Delmas & Burbano, 2011;Alejos-Góngora, 2013;Rubio-Martín, 2016). ...
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... As we shall see, this may be caused by the problem of greenwashing. Greenwashing, a term coined in the 1980s by an American environmentalist Jay Westerveld, refers to the action of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or environmental benefits of a product(Romero 2008;Gallicano 2011). The smaller greenium, if attributable to a lower idiosyncratic greenium of the bond due possibly to a greater risk of greenwashing, does not at all mean that it is undervalued by the market. ...
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Sadly, not much. This paper provides a theoretical and empirical analysis of the greenium, the price premium the investor pays for green bonds over conventional bonds. We explain in simple economic terms why the price premium of a green bond essentially represents a combination of the non-pecuniary environmental benefit of the bond, as perceived by the investor, and the effective cost of issuing it, as measured by the additional issuing costs of the bond netted off a range of monetary and non-monetary benefits associated with the issuance. Our empirical model decomposes the greenium into a time-varying market component which is common to all green bonds and an idiosyncratic component which is specific to a certain green bond itself. Using the largest global green bond dataset compared to any previous studies, we find that the greenium on average amounts to, sadly, just over one basis point. However, it varies quite significantly among individual green bonds and our result suggests that a key factor underlying the variation is that they are subject to the risk of greenwashing to different extents.
... Consequently, the theories that support perceived CSR in the literature recognize that companies must take into account the interests of different stakeholders, including customers, partners, suppliers, employees and communities, in business decisionmaking [32,33]. In this sense, there is a great fear among directors that they will be accused of greenwashing [34] and that, therefore, the company's perceived CSR may be understood as such [28]. This is determined when people perceive that a company that is proud of its social work can hide an opportunistic intention [35]. ...
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The work aims to achieve a better understanding of firms’ green strategy, and specifically, in the false green strategy called greenwashing, and the relationships between greenwashing (GW) and behaviour intention (BI), and how this relationship is affected by word of mouth (WOM) and corporative social responsability (CRS). A survey was conducted and 198 valid and complete online questionnaires were collected from users of urban mobility apps (Blablacar and Amovens) in Spain. The structural equation modeling technique partial least squares (PLS-SEM) was used to test the proposed research model and hypothesized relationships. The results of our study indicate that the direct relationship between GW and BI is not supported, although the indirect relationship through WOM and CRS is significant, so that both become mediating variables of the GW and BI relationship. The paper also analyzes the direct relationships between GW, CRS, WOM and BI, so that the direct effects GW and CRS; CRS and WOM; and WOM and BI are significant. This empirical study analyzes the effect of GW, which has not been studied much, especially in empirical research. The study analyzes several variable consequences of GW and analyzes mediating effects of CRS and WOM on the GW and BI relationship. The study also includes two behavioral indicators, WOM and BI, in a research model, and, additionally, the study demonstrates the relationship between GW and perceived CRS.
... Il greenwashing si qualifica come "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service" (TerraChoice, 2007, p. 1). Il termine indica l'incongruenza tra l'effettivo comportamento delle imprese e i loro claim, in riferimento alla differenza esistente tra la comunicazione di un'azienda e la sua reale personalità, più o meno "green" (Gallicano, 2011). ...
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Sommario Il presente studio ha l'obiettivo di indagare la percezione dei consumatori ri-guardo le attività di corporate social responsibility (CSR) di una azienda impegnata nel sociale che, tuttavia, non gode di un giudizio favorevole presso i propri consu-matori, allo scopo di verificare se ad un giudizio negativo dell'impresa corrisponde una percezione negativa anche delle pratiche di CSR. A tale scopo, si persegue un duplice obiettivo: 1) individuare l'esistenza del fit tra il core business dell'azienda in questione e le attività di CSR intraprese dall'impresa, per comprovare l'eticità dell'impresa in questione; 2) identificare l'eventuale fit tra la comunicazione delle attività di CSR dell'azienda e la percezione delle attività etiche dell'impresa da parte dei consumatori. La ricerca è basata sulla metodologia del case study, che esamina il caso azien-dale Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), tramite l'analisi di dati secondari e dati primari. I risultati confermano l'esistenza del fit tra il core business e le attività di CSR di FS ma, allo stesso tempo, mostrano una discrepanza tra la comunicazione delle attività di CSR dell'azienda e la percezione delle stesse da parte dei consumatori.
... Il greenwashing si qualifica come "the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service" (TerraChoice, 2007, p. 1). Il termine indica l'incongruenza tra l'effettivo comportamento delle imprese e i loro claim, in riferimento alla differenza esistente tra la comunicazione di un'azienda e la sua reale personalità, più o meno "green" (Gallicano, 2011). ...
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... However, a firm could also choose to report more or less information on CSP for other reasons: For instance, an acute environmental damage that impacts negatively the firm's reputation could force it to increase CSR and ESG disclosure. Companies could also use disclosure irrespectively of their true ESG performance (greenwashing) [22] or, inversely, managers could choose not to publicize their environmentally or socially responsible investments if they fear that investors may perceive these activities as unnecessary costs detrimental to their interests (brownwashing) [23]. ...
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