Greenwashing – How big a problem is it? When choosing paint, it’s becoming evident that the contents might not always be exactly what it says on the tin! Many claim to be ‘eco-friendly’ or contain low levels of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) but when you look further, there is more to it than meets the eye. In this industry and at this present time it’s so important to get the facts right, we know how much greenwashing is out there and so we have always strived to give our customers as much information as possible in order for them to make an informed decision. In the aftermath of COP26 some of the headlines have subsided but here at Natural Paint HQ we are committed to keeping the conversation going and keeping topics like greenwashing top of mind. So we thought the first thing we would address is greenwashing and ask how big of a problem it really is within the paint industry? Who better to write about this than our founder, Edward Bulmer himself, read on to hear more about the struggle in navigating a world and industry full of greenwashing. Greenwashing – is it a big problem? Greenwashing, is it a big problem? Or could there ever be an argument that greenwashing should be seen positively? Frankly I can’t think of one, unless one feels that by going on the record with green intentions a company or government can subsequently be held to account. But how would this in fact happen? Have we not seen that government spokesmen and company marketing teams can spin any story to put them on the side of the angels? Governments can be assessed on the data collected by statisticians to some extent, but what about companies? When BP brands itself as ‘beyond petroleum’ what are we supposed to understand by that? When retailers say they have ambitious targets to curb single-use plastics, do we agree that they are ambitious enough or even ambitious, in the context of their reported profits? Do we think that it is ok that they amplified the problem to the dangerous extent it has already reached, in the first place? The issue is that we are not talking about a dialogue here. Government A and Company B are treating us as recipients of the information that they would like us to have, in order to accept the world view most suitable to them. This is what has given rise to the practice of greenwashing which can mislead consumers. Like whitewashing, it is a device used to deflect ‘heat’, in this case to give the impression that something embodies an intent to be ecologically or environmentally responsible – the term many use is ‘eco-friendly’. This derives from the notion that it is harmless though we might equally take it to be useful or benign – we are generally kind to our friends and do not take from them or disadvantage them! Eco-friendly is not a term that has a legal definition however and so if we think it is used incorrectly, we can report its use to the Advertising Standards Authority or perhaps Trading Standards, but little else. This happens incredibly rarely given the frequency with which the term is used. So this is why oil giants and power producers have been beguiling us with footage of wind turbines, solar panels and forestry – even though most allocate a small percentage of their investment in these areas and that, only recently, despite their own scientists having known and warned of the dangers of carbon emissions since the 1980s. In my own industry, paint making, the term eco-friendly is used by many manufacturers in an unholy alliance based on ‘we know it does not really mean much but if we all use it then that does not matter’. So where does that leave the company that does believe they are using it sincerely and with proper justification? Basically, paint is called eco-friendly when it is water-based, despite almost all paints containing resin binders that are forms of acrylic, vinyl or alkyd – all polymers that are derived from petro-chemicals. Also for the record all paint is water based, that is how paint is made! So, while the world’s governments now accept that using fossil fuels, fossil sources and petro-chemicals must be reduced to be eco-friendly and address the climate emergency, the paint and coatings industry apparently does not. Nine times out of ten the use of the term eco-friendly here is, in my view, greenwashing. Ironically when a mischievous competitor reported Edward Bulmer Natural Paint to the ASA in 2018, they asserted that we could neither claim to be a ‘natural paint’ nor ‘the most eco-friendly’. We contested this on both counts and the complaint about our claiming to be natural paint was not upheld. This in itself implies that our ‘most eco-friendly’ claim for the paint may well have been reasonable given that the natural ingredients were fully declared and did not list fossil or environmentally damaging materials. However, our belief that this qualified the paint to be called the most eco-friendly on the market was not upheld in the absence of our ability to show that it was better than all other comparable products – something that is impossible, given that it is not mandatory to declare the ingredients used in paint so we cannot meaningfully compare ourselves to others more than in general terms. The ASA is a reactive body. It does not investigate anything unless it receives a complaint or identifies wrongdoing. Unlike the law of the land its investigation procedure is arguably based on ‘guilty until proven innocent’. This is why, almost alone in the paint industry, a natural paint company can have a ruling against it that seems to suggest it is not eco-friendly! In fact, the only other paint company that does have a ruling against it is the one that brought the complaint against Edward Bulmer Natural Paint in the first place. This highlights that it’s an imperfect and perhaps even partisan system, that can be easily misinterpreted in the press with news articles and reports quoting only partial facts that suit the narrative of their article and not necessarily the full facts of the situation. The problem with a fact finder news report or article that contains only partial facts is that it does the consumer and the problem itself a disservice and perhaps leaves us in need of a new term if eco friendly is now classed as a form of green washing by the media. Greenwashing is on the rise – it is a useful tool for companies to deflect criticism or attention while they figure out how to address future production without fossil derived materials and carbon emitting processes. It is not necessary however, if the plans to meet this reduction in environmental damage stack up and are acted on within an urgent time frame. The consumer is reasonable, when treated as a grown up. Words by Edward Bulmer, Founder of Edward Bulmer Natural Paint Edward Bulmer: colour man, eco worrier and founder of Edward Bulmer Natural Paint Accountable sustainability is in our DNA. Edward is an active eco campaigner, hosting an annual environmental fair at his HQ in Herefordshire and chairing one of the UK’s most forward thinking foundations on sustainable living. He is passionate about making our living spaces healthier for us and protecting buildings and our environment. For the past 15 years he has been working with specialist paint manufacturers to develop beautiful coloured paints which are both safer and healthier by returning to non toxic bio=based paint formulations. I think that the paint industry could lead the charge for the appropriate use of plastic by switching to natural binders. Currently, it uses a lot of water, a fair amount of theoretically recyclable packaging and writes ‘eco-friendly’ on the tin. This is basic compliance, but it has to go further. Legislation always helps when an entire industry needs to change and the first and obvious step to this is to make a clear declaration of ingredients mandatory. Edward Bulmer, talking to Roddy Clarke for Forbes.com What’s in our tins is on our tins The truth is this is such an important issue and it’s one we can’t afford to get wrong or have misrepresented in a way that can negatively impact the consumers’ views. When it comes to companies being eco-friendly what are your thoughts? Do you feel greenwashing is becoming a bigger issue than it used to be previously? We would love to hear your thoughts and would be grateful if you could share this article! We are committed to making positive change for people and our planet and making paints that protect biodiversity – what’s in our tins is on our tins. To get in touch email email@example.com SEE OUR INGREDIENTS WHY OUR PAINT?