Greenwashing explained: how one company is fighting back

The climate crisis is very real and in many areas, getting worse. Evidence is all around, from extreme weather across the globe to more frequent forest fires in places such as Australia and the USA, to coastal erosion as sea levels rise.

We all want to do our bit to combat the climate crisis, but how do we know that the latest initiative we are signing up to, or the ‘sustainable’ product we have just bought, is not an example of corporate ‘greenwashing’?

Greenwashing is the practice of making false claims that your company or products are environmentally friendly. Purporting to be environmentally friendly despite evidence to the contrary has become a marketing technique in an age when the environment is on everyone’s mind. 

Not all companies greenwash, and some instances of greenwashing are far more egregious than others. But all make it that little bit harder for the average consumer to separate fact from fiction when it comes to a company’s green credentials. 

Though greenwashing is a modern buzzword, the practice has been around a lot longer than you may think. Perhaps the first instance of greenwashing (though it wasn’t called that at the time) was the ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign, launched in 1953. 

Ostensibly a campaign to discourage littering, Keep America Beautiful was actually launched by the biggest drinks companies in America. It was an attempt to stave off regulation of plastic drinks bottles, and shift the blame for the mountains of plastic waste generated every year onto the consumer, rather than the manufacturer. They were successful: the legislation did not pass, and 100.7 billion plastic bottles were produced in the USA in 2014 alone!

Today, greenwashing takes many forms, and companies big and small engage in it. 

Fossil fuel companies are perhaps the worst offenders. One major fossil fuel company’s high-profile marketing campaign sought to highlight its low carbon credentials and investment in renewable energy. However, though the company has invested $3.2 billion into clean energy research and development since 2016, it has pumped $84 billion into its existing oil and gas interests. Fossil fuel multinationals are some of the world’s biggest polluters, both directly and indirectly, and Climate Earth called this company’s greenwashing campaign a “great deception” in 2021. 

But it’s not just the biggest companies in the world that engage in such behaviours. The smallest start-ups can be guilty, even if their greenwashing activities are done with the best of intentions. Perhaps the most common example of this is in ‘carbon offsetting’ activities. These are particularly prevalent among brands that market themselves as being environmentally conscious. They may pledge to plant a tree for every one of their products sold, and even produce infographics or social media posts to show how many trees they have planted.

The problem with this is that, by convincing their customers that the carbon is to be ‘offset’, they are encouraging them to commit to a bigger carbon footprint by purchasing more and more. Even if the amount of carbon used to create (for example) a T-shirt was offset by the planting of one or more trees, there is still the carbon used in the packaging, transporting and delivering the T-shirt to its buyer. None of this can be standardised and reliably offset, as any one company’s customers could be spread all across the country or even the world. 

Which brings us to the tech industry, and our growing reliance on inter-connected devices to power modern infrastructure and our online society. Though many companies greenwash by claiming their battery-powered devices are great for the environment, or that devices are made with ‘sustainable’ materials, our modern consumption of IT and telecommunications devices creates huge amounts of waste. 

‘E-waste’, as it has been dubbed, is one of the most rapidly-growing problems that the world faces today. According to The World Counts, which keeps track of the issue, we generate around 50 million tonnes of e-waste every year. This is equivalent to throwing away 1,000 laptops every single second. The material value of this waste is worth at least £50 billion per annum.

With all the components that go into producing tech, this is a huge problem. E-waste contains extremely toxic chemicals, including lead, cadmium, dioxins, furans, arsenic, mercury, DDT, PCB, chromium, vinyl chloride, antimony and beryllium. All of these can cause health problems for people and great damage to the environment – a far cry from the sleek, clean aesthetics that the biggest tech companies present to the world.

As well as this, e-waste contains incredibly valuable elements trapped within it. Creating the super-fast connections that we have all come to rely on demands more and more precious and rare earth metals such as gold and platinum to conduct electricity and signals within tiny circuit boards and microchips. Some $20 billion in gold and silver is used each year to manufacture new electronic devices. In fact, there is more pure gold in a modern smartphone than in the equivalent weight of gold ore, making e-waste potentially the biggest source of the precious metal in the world today. 

Finally, not all e-waste is waste. In today’s world, people throw away devices that are perfectly usable, and could be wiped of private data, refurbished and sold on. Every device that is saved and recirculated means one less device that needs to be built from scratch – alongside the elimination of the carbon emissions associated with that process.  

Many companies are deeply engaged in a hugely destructive cycle of producing devices with built-in obsolescence. They hold back already-invented features so that they can be released 18 months down the line with the next ‘must-have’ device, all the while greenwashing their image as they produce all of this e-waste. However, there is one tech company that is fighting back.

n2s is a growing company that is creating a circular economy for the tech industry. At its HQ in Bury St Edmunds, and its centres in Mansfield and Reading, n2s devotes its energies to recovery, refurbishment and recycling of IT and telecoms equipment. Its goal is ‘zero to landfill’ for all equipment that is brought to the company.

At n2s, all devices that can be saved are saved, and then redeployed back into circulation. And for those devices that can’t be re-used, n2s removes and re-uses components before the device is recycled. N2S’s mission is to recover as much material as possible, using cable granulators and a sophisticated dismantling process that separates materials such as copper, aluminium and steel so they can be returned into the manufacturing cycle. For example, plastics from cables that have been separated from the metal inside go on to make products used in street furniture such as traffic cones and car park matting. 

Special attention is lavished on the printed circuit boards found in the tech, with n2s pioneering an ‘urban mining’ technique to extract the precious metals which can then be reused, reducing the need to mine for more raw materials.

Why is this important? By creating this infinity loop for the tech industry, n2s is redefining the technology lifecycle. By focusing on the problem, and not on how the problem can be dressed up and deflected, n2s is addressing one of the most serious issues that faces the planet today. 

And it doesn’t end there: n2s wants to challenge other companies to Be Infinitely Better. Rather than greenwashing the problem of e-waste, they want to help businesses to meet their sustainability goals by taking obsolete tech and turning it into something useful in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

n2s has industry-leading data destruction capabilities, meaning that sensitive data stored on devices can be erased to the highest possible standard. This gives peace of mind to all who partner with n2s, and means they can recycle and refurbish their old devices with the utmost confidence. 

Sustainability is not a marketing tool. It’s a commitment that we all need to make to ensure an infinitely better future for all. 

To find out more about n2s and its work to create an infinity loop for the tech industry, visit www.n2s.co.uk

#BeInfinitelyBetter