When Erica Williams ’24 stayed after class to ask her business management professor, Dr. Amy Gresock, more about a topic she mentioned in class, she didn’t know it would lead to directed research, presenting her research and even switching her major.
Williams was a computer information systems and technology major when she learned about the practice of greenwashing – a practice in which businesses make unsubstantiated claims to make consumers think they are environmentally friendly to sell more product.
Williams was surprised by the practice and that it is legal. She asked Gresock if she could conduct further research with her.
Gresock was familiar with the greenwashing practice and believed Williams, one of her best students, would be a suitable candidate to research it further. Gresock said she also thought it was great that Williams wanted to start the research with her.
“I had Erica in my business ethics class, and she was a stellar student, one who was always raising her hand and always engaged and coming after class asking questions,” Gresock said. “At the end of the semester, she showed an interest when we were talking about advertising and issues with advertising. She seemed like she wanted to learn more, she really showed an interest.”
The two met weekly create a plan for a research stream, or series of related papers written on the topic. Williams began the research outside of her regular course work. And although there were no grades, the two set the goal of Williams presenting her research at the university’s annual Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Fair.
Non-credit research can give students a deeper appreciation of their field of study, Gresock said, but it can be intimidating to the student who has a large course load, a job, extracurricular activities or personal responsibilities.
“This isn’t just writing a school paper, this is understanding through scholarly, scientific research,” she explained. “This is learning how to find scholarly articles, doing literature reviews and learning what academic theory is. Erica caught on quickly; she did a lot of digging in the library.”
The process of assembling and making sense of all the work, can be especially challenging in a new field such as greenwashing, Gresock added. Williams’ research included delving into different fields of science and business, marketing, advertising and consumer behavior.
Williams decided to base her research on the theory that some greenwashing companies may have used the pandemic to their advantage. For example, her research focused on whether consumers had an increased awareness of product labeling, and if they bought what they thought were more sustainable, healthier products during the pandemic.
Williams admitted she was surprised by what she learned about greenwashing through the materials and journals she scoured.
“It’s not regulated, which is one of the questions I was asked when I was presenting [at the scholarship fair],” Williams said of greenwashing practices. “There are some regulations in terms of advertising, but in terms of catch phrases or buzzwords -- such as ‘all natural,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘plant based’ or ‘sustainable’ -- these companies can just put it on their products, and it doesn’t really mean anything. There is no regulatory agency [to question the claims]. You might have a company that slaps a label on the product, or images of a forest or green coloring, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s meaningless.”
Gresock added, “They leave out information, so it doesn’t seem like they’re lying, but they’re leaving information out.”
In contrast, if a company labels its product as USDA Organic, there are regulations that determine whether it can be certified as organic.
Williams said she was surprised by the number of people at the scholarship fair who were unfamiliar with greenwashing.
“When I presented my theory research, I asked at the beginning how many people had heard about greenwashing and there were maybe three or four hands that went up, and the room was pretty full,” she said.