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CHALLENGING FOR MALAYSIANS TO DETECT GREENWASHING, SAY EXPERTS

14/03/2024 10:32 AM
From Soon Li Wei

In recent years, phrases like  'Go Green and save our Mother Earth' and 'We are using sustainable and recycled plastic materials' have become quite popular and can be found on labels or in advertisements of household products.

As society becomes more environmentally conscious, consumers are turning to eco-friendly products and services. But if you have ever chosen a product based on packaging that proudly displays terms like 'eco-friendly' or 'made from recycled materials' without bearing a certified logo, you may have fallen victim to greenwashing.

Greenwashing – defined as the sharing of misleading information by organisations and companies to appear environmentally responsible – has come under public scrutiny now. The word itself is a portmanteau, coined from the combination of the words ‘green’ – often associated with environmentalism – and ‘whitewashing’ which means to cover up or gloss over undesirable facts.

“Greenwashing is a global issue,” said UNITEN (Universiti Tenaga Nasional) Business School senior lecturer Dr Abdul Rahman Zahari, adding, “It’s a strategic maneuver that aims to capitalise on the growing demand for eco-friendly products and practices while sidestepping the actual implementation of sustainable measures.”

He said with an increasing number of eco-conscious consumers seeking sustainable practices, investors are looking out for environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance when making investment decisions.


More eco-friendly products are available in the market due to eco-conscious consumers seeking sustainable practices

 

CONSUMER BEHAVIOUR

Despite worldwide regulatory crackdowns against misleading environmental claims, a 2023 study by Kantar – a global data, insights and consulting company based in London – revealed that fears over greenwashing remain widespread among consumers, preventing them from adopting more sustainable behaviours.  

According to Kantar’s Sustainability Sector Index 2023, which provides data insights from 32,000 interviews across 42 sectors in 33 countries, over 52 percent of respondents reported encountering false or misleading information about sustainable actions taken by brands.

The worst offending sectors were social media (60 percent), meat and meat products (58 percent) and clothing and footwear (57 percent), while pet food and baby hygiene products sit at the bottom of the table for greenwashing concerns. 

In Malaysia, meanwhile, many people have awareness of the need to protect the environment and are already taking positive steps to protect the planet via purchasing and consumption behaviours, according to the findings of a national survey on Climate Change Concern, Behaviour and Media Attitude conducted in 2022 by Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub (MCCCRH) Malaysia Node, a research institute led by the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia in collaboration with MCCCRH Australia.            

The survey, involving 1,063 respondents aged 18 and above, found that about 55 percent of them have punished companies that oppose efforts to mitigate climate change by not buying their products. 


More consumers are becoming more eco-conscious in purchasing and consumption behaviour

MCCCRH Malaysia Node postdoctoral research fellow Dr Azliyana Azhari said throughout the survey, respondents were asked questions to establish their stage of adoption of specific actions to address climate change, including purchasing and consumption behaviour, energy- and fuel-related behaviour and waste management behaviour. 

"In purchasing and consumption behaviours, 63 percent of them were switching to more eco-friendly products,” she said.

As more Malaysians become environmentally conscious and care about climate change by reducing their daily plastic usage, detecting greenwashing in products and services can present a challenge for them.

 

DETECTING GREENWASHING

Abdul Rahman suggested several effective strategies and key indicators to discern authenticity from misleading claims.

"Watch out for the use of vague or generic terms such as 'eco-friendly', 'green' or 'natural' without clear specifics about what makes the products environmentally friendly. 

"It is essential to see concrete proof of a company's assertions… if they withhold detailed information, it might indicate questionable motives,” he told Bernama, adding lack of transparency is a red flag as companies that are truly dedicated to sustainability tend to be open about their practices. 


Verify the authenticity of the logo with the respective bodies

He said another method is verifying the credibility of the environmental certifications associated with the products concerned as not all certifications hold the same weight.

“Try to familiarise yourself with reputable eco-friendly labels and certifications such as Sirim Eco-Labelling, Star, USDA Organic or Fair Trade to ensure your chosen products genuinely adhere to stringent environmental standards,” he said. 

Advising consumers to stay informed about industry practices and environmental issues in order to make well-founded decisions, he said they should also exercise caution when encountering products of companies that claim to be “greener” than their competitors without backing their claims.

 

ESG FRAMEWORKS

Today, the market’s interpretation of 'sustainable' and 'go green' has expanded to incorporate social and governance issues as well, thanks to the development of ESG as an analysis framework.

As a result, comments that go beyond simple environmental claims may now be included in greenwashing activity.

Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak said in Malaysia, when identifying the sustainability of a product or service using the ESG approach, there must be accountability and a tailored framework to meet the country's needs.

"The preferred ESG frameworks adopted (in Malaysia) are based on international and mature markets as most products are meant for export and primarily measured against carbon emissions.

"In Malaysia, we have plastic issues, primarily plastic and river pollution. This might not be an issue in the United Kingdom anymore due to their high level of environmental awareness but it is (an issue) in Malaysia," he said when contacted by Bernama.


Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer, Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak

Mohd Yusoff urged consideration of additional environmental challenges in Malaysia's ESG framework particularly waste and plastic pollution, being the country's most pressing issues.

"It is okay to claim that you are contributing to the environment by being sustainable. They (companies and organisations) may say they are reducing the impact of carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

"However, in terms of the environment, from an environmental perspective, their product or service, at the end of its life cycle, could end up in the river as plastic too. So, it is not totally green or sustainable at the end of the day," he said.

 

AWARENESS ON ECO-PRODUCT LABELLING

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Malaysia country director Charmaine Chee emphasised the importance of adhering to the highest environmental and social standards when certifying products.

(FSC is an international non-profit organisation established in 1994 to promote sustainable management of the world’s forests, that is, managing forests in a way that’s environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable.)

She said the FSC label covers the whole supply chain of a forest-based product and it can only be placed on a product if there is an intact chain of custody. 

“The FSC label assures consumers the products are made with or contain forest-based materials from FSC-certified forests, recycled materials and/or controlled materials. It also signifies the products support the protection of biodiversity, fair wage and work environment, deforestation- and degradation-free practices and community rights. 

" Currently, FSC-certified forests comprise more than 160 million hectares of forests that meet these criteria, representing approximately 10 percent of the world's working forests," she said. 


FSC Malaysia Country Director, Charmaine Chee

She added that even if consumers have an awareness of the importance of choosing products made of responsibly sourced materials, they may not necessarily be able to decipher the various ‘green’ labels on products, much less uncover claims that are purportedly ‘greenwashing’.

 “So, we at FSC Malaysia are addressing these concerns by not only raising awareness amongst consumers but also businesses and other organisations about the importance of providing assurance of sustainably sourced materials in forest-based products through trusted, credible certification,” she said. 

Forest-based products include paper, fibre and wood as well as non-timber products such as natural rubber, bamboo, rattan and resin.

 

Edited by Rema Nambiar

 

This article is written in conjunction with World Consumer Rights Day which is observed annually on March 15.

 


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