Learning Nugget September 2019

Greenwashing and the Grüne Knopf

Recently, the German Federal Development Minister Gerd Müller saw one of his initiatives become reality: the Grüner Knopf. This “Green Button” is a symbol that textile sellers can put on their products once they have been certified to meet standards set by Germany’s federal government. The standards relate to the physical, social, and economic welfare of the workers producing the textiles and the products’ environmental impact.

At first glance, this initiative seems hard to criticize. The Green Button is meant to help consumers more easily make choices that are better for the world. Also, the fact that the certification comes from the government gives it a lot of power and notoriety. More consumers will know about it and look for it, so more businesses will seek to earn it – seemingly a win-win-win for the textile workers, environment, and businesses.

As good as the initiative seems, though, it’s actually getting a lot of criticism. And the loudest objections are coming from groups who support sustainable and socially-responsible textile production. These groups’ objections relate to something called “greenwashing.” In this Learning Nugget, we’ll explore the meaning of that term and why some argue the new Green Button will only make it more common in Germany’s textile industry.

What’s greenwashing?

In Guardian article on greenwashing there’s a very clear example of what the practice looks like and why it’s done. In the 1980s the energy company Chevron – which deals largely in oil and was one of the worst polluters in the United States at the time – produced a series of ads showing what their company was doing to help the environment. One of those ads featured a butterfly garden the company supported. While the butterfly garden likely cost around five thousand USD per year to keep up, the company spent millions advertising it.

In other words, it appeared that making the world think of Chevron as a company that cared about the environment was far more important than actually protecting the environment at the time. That’s exactly what greenwashing is: A company heavily advertising a small, environmentally friendly initiative to distract people from environmentally damaging aspects of their business practices.

How could the Green Button help companies greenwash?

The main problem critics have with the Green Button certification seems to be that its rules are not strict enough. An article from Die Zeit describes two examples of this.

One is that though workers creating Green Button textiles have to be paid a minimum wage, that minimum wage often still isn’t enough to fully support workers. The article cites an example in Bangladesh where the workers receive a minimum wage of roughly 80 euros per month – enough to earn the Green Button – but would likely need double that to fully support themselves.

The second example is how the Green Button certification process only starts once the fabric is being worked on in factories and not from the very beginning. That means that textiles made from cotton taken from fields where hazardous chemicals and pesticides were used can still earn the Green Button if they are processed in an environmentally friendly way later on.

And how could these factors contribute to corporate greenwashing? Because the Green Button is getting a lot of publicity and its standards are relatively easy to meet, large companies are likely to seek it out. Case in point, Tchibo, Aldi North and South, Lidl, Rewe, and many others are already Green Button certified. These companies can now use their Green Button to advertise how environmentally and worker-friendly their products are, with few consumers understanding that the textiles sold by these companies could still be greatly harming the environment and not providing living wages to the workers producing them.

A hard call

So is the Green Button little more than a way for businesses to seem socially and environmentally responsible without needing to make major changes? The answer, of course, is complicated.

You could argue that if the Green Button makes large companies demand processes that are at least somewhat more environmentally friendly and better for workers, it’s overall a positive thing. However, you could also say that even if it does promote some positive changes, it could make consumers believe their purchases are better for the world than they truly are and make it harder for them to differentiate between Green Button products and those that reach an even higher standard.

Let us know what you think

With the Green Button being so new, it will be a waiting game to see how it affects the textile market or if the government changes standards for the certification based on current criticism. If you have your own thoughts or comments on this issue, we’d love to see them on our link to this Learning Nugget on our Facebook page.

Vocabulary

Federal Development Minister – Bundesminister für Entwicklung

becomes reality – Wirklichkeit werden

textile sellers – Textilwarenverkäufer, Textilanbieter

federal government – Bundesregierung

relate to sth. – etw betreffen

welfare – Wohlfahrt

environmental impact – ökologischen Einfluss

notoriety – Allbekanntheit

seek to earn – danach streben es zu bekommen

objections – Einwände, Beanstandungen

greenwashing – Grünfärberei

bad – worse – worst – schlimm, schlimmer, am schlimmsten

polluters – Verschmutzer

ads – Anzeigen

to distract from – ablenken von

damaging aspects – schädliche Aspekte

minimum wage – Mindestlohn

to cite – anführen, zitieren

receive – erhalten

would likely need – bräuchten wahrscheinlich

to fully support themselves – um sich vollständig selbst zu tragen

once the fabric is being worked on – sobald der Stoff verarbeitet wird

hazardous chemicals and pesticides – gefährliche Chemikalien und Pestizide

contribute to – zu etwas beitragen, etwas beisteuern

easy to meet – leicht zu erfüllen

case in point – typisches Beispiel

greatly harming the environment – sehr der Umwelt schaden

a hard call – eine schwere Entscheidung

differentiate between – differenzieren zwischen

waiting game – Geduldsspiel

to affect – beeinträchtigen