In 1986 environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term 'greenwashing,' in an expose of American companies with questionable sustainability ethics. If whitewashing is about glossing over malpractice in general, greenwashing is about glossing over practices which harm the environment; usually with deceptive PR moves.
What it actually looks like varies widely. Greenwashing could be as simple as removing plastic from a product shipped from overseas and repackaging it in hand-printed recycled paper, or as complex as investing in ecological innovation to detract from environmental exploitation elsewhere.
Counterbalancing ‘unpopular’ activities with those that are more favourable (and more visible) is a well-established practice for corporations. Tobacco, oil and drug companies have long used philanthropic practices in the hopes of detracting attention from their core business. Without endowment from the Sackler family, for example (and their gains from pharmaceuticals), London's cultural landscape could look very different.
Major oil companies like BP have gotten into trouble previously over their arts sponsorship. Following demonstrations from artists and activists, Tate ceased to accept funding from BP in 2016. This marked the end of 26 years of major investment from the oil company, with protestors believing that none of this was worth the tacit support of BP’s destructive activities.
Greenwashing is a more direct approach to ‘fixing an image problem.' Continuing with the example of BP, some critics have argued that major campaigns advertising the business's move into cleaner alternatives were misleading, considering 96% of the businesses funds were going into oil and gas.
However, that doesn’t mean that the efforts of businesses to become greener - even if this pressure comes from consumers - should be denounced. As Jason Ballard, CEO of Tree House tells the Guardian, greenwashing is only ‘the dark side of a very positive development.’
Instead, a good measure of greenwashing is when the amount of time, effort and money a business puts into advertising its sustainability credentials outstrips the time, effort and money it puts into actually being sustainable.
Greenwashing and houseplants
Growing plants is a far cry from fracking. But even compared to cut flowers or fresh food, the amount of wastage that comes from plants is lower, because the guidelines for keeping plants fresh are neither as stringent nor as environmentally costly.
Similarly, plants and trees are responsible for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and regulating a healthy planet. Whether trees alone could counteract environmental devastation is doubtful, but planting is certainly ‘a good thing’ when it comes to the planet.
It is true that growers tend to use single-use plastic to protect houseplants' delicate foliage. Bloombox Club has worked with and visited growers across the Netherlands, and is yet to meet a grower who does not use plastic for at least some varieties. If you’re buying a plant without a plastic sleeve, this indicates that the retailer has removed the plastic wrapping; not that it was plastic-free to begin with.
There are many reasons a plant shop, on or offline would want to get rid of see-through plastic in favour of their own, or no, branding. We don’t think this in and of itself constitutes greenwashing, nor would we claim that being environmentally friendly is always straightforward. But we do object to plant businesses claiming to be plastic-free when they aren’t. While they might boast a plastic-free image, they’re unlikely to be offering a plastic-free product.
Why aren’t Bloombox Club plastic-free?So why have we chosen not to remove the plastic sleeves our plants come in; and why do we use bubble wrap for some pots?
Firstly, we want to be transparent with our customers, so we see no sense in removing plastic that growers already use. And ‘why do growers use plastic?’ see our explanation below:
Shops, garden centres, market-sellers, and in-person couriers will all have had their plants delivered from growers. Because the market expects plants to look a certain way (with little margin for their being natural products), if plants arrive damaged, the plant will be wasted, and the grower will need to replace it. This incurs more deliveries, which means more emissions, a higher price tag and more packaging (even if it’s ‘just’ cardboard).
Thus, our aim as a business is to use the least amount of plastic possible, without it affecting damage rates (which would ultimately cause greater environmental harm).
We don’t consider ourselves to be perfect, but we’ve worked hard to bring plants to you directly, with no intermediary packaging from a third party, plastic or otherwise. Despite pooling resources and contacts, and having a direct supply chain, we can’t think of a more environmentally-friendly way to deliver houseplants to UK customers. So, if anyone promises you they’re delivering plants ‘plastic-free,’ you’ll forgive us for being a little sceptical …