Sciencewashing: the new greenwashing?

While visiting Fiji in 1983, environmentalist Jay Westerveld became intrigued by a note hanging in his hotel room. The message urged guests to reuse their towels to protect the coral reefs and oceans, concluding with the phrase “help us to help our environment.”

At first glance, the message seemed well-intentioned. However, beyond the four walls of his room, Westerveld could see that the resort was rapidly expanding. New buildings were popping up along the coastline with little regard for potential environmental consequences. To Westerveld, the ironic contrast between the resort’s actions and environmentalist messaging was evident.

Three years later, when writing about the experience, he coined the term greenwashing. Now, growing emphasis on the climate crisis has thrust the concept into the mainstream. Companies are increasingly attempting to appeal to environment-conscious consumers, resulting in exaggerated, misleading, or outright false claims. Rarely do companies mistakenly greenwash their products or global image. Instead, greenwashing is an intentional marketing tactic used to exploit customers and get away with doing the bare minimum.

The complexity of cosmetic chemistry allows companies to get away with greenwashing and sciencewashing. In the beauty industry, marketing trumps facts.

Sciencewashing is a much newer term, seemingly originating in 2019. Specifically, sciencewashing was created in response to questionable marketing claims made by cosmetics and skincare companies. Instead of duping consumers into believing that products are more environmentally friendly, companies push the message that their products are more scientifically advanced than the competition. But as is the case with greenwashing, the proof for their claims is commonly non-existent.

The beauty industry is far from the only sector where sciencewashing is a popular yet shady marketing technique. Many other companies adopt technical, scientific terms to promote the supposed superiority of their products. Companies will also include molecular structures and other science-based imagery on labels to sell the idea that their products are born from scientific prowess. They may even falsely claim to be recommended by leading experts in their field.

Sciencewashing and scientism

In the few instances where sciencewashing describes the marketing strategies of different brands, it has been used interchangeably with scientism. The latter is a more common term and has been around for decades. By definition, it describes the excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. This philosophy frames science as either the best or the sole objective means by which society should attribute value, leading to science’s application in unwarranted situations.

Indeed, sciencewashing is science applied in an unwarranted situation, such as when actual scientific evidence is lacking to support a given claim. But sciencewashing is superficial and aesthetic – like greenwashing – whereas scientism is a way of defining reality and its meaning. Although both terms refer to improper applications of science, I see the two as separate phenomena.

Sciencewashing is the illusion of science. Consumers are more likely to trust a new product if its marketing features stereotypical imagery and technical jargon – it doesn’t matter if the claims are actually false.

Confused (or convinced) by chemistry

Sciencewashing lends well to when a product’s chemical composition is key to its performance. Most people don’t have extensive knowledge when it comes to chemistry. Even as an MSc chemistry student, I am increasingly aware of the boundlessness of my chosen domain. The chemical world is too vast to master in its entirety, which is why chemists commonly specialize in specific branches of the field. While someone may be an expert in the chemistry of motor oil, for example, they may not necessarily know the first thing about the chemical composition of a face cleanser or a stick of chewing gum. Depending on their training, they may even be oblivious to how the chemicals they work with daily behave in the environment. That job is often attributed to other experts.

Companies are well aware that chemistry is inaccessible to most. They know that very few people possess the knowledge to validate or debunk their claims. They know that governmental regulatory agencies lack the power to hold them accountable for exaggerated or misleading marketing – unless the claim is a blatant lie. Consequently, they often are not held to the standard of performance or innovation they profess.

At least greenwashed products have an easily identifiable aesthetic: minimalist packaging in a green colour palette featuring keywords like all-natural, chemical-free, and non-toxic. On the other hand, misinformation is harder to identify when communicated by people in white lab coats or other supposed figures of authority. After all, there are cases where solid research does support a company’s claims, so using scientific jargon or symbols is an appropriate potential marketing strategy.

With no clear-cut rubric for identifying sciencewashing, it’s best to err on the side of true science and question everything. As the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true…

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