What is Greenwashing? What You Need to Know

Photo by Alena Koval from Pexels

Photo by Alena Koval from Pexels

Right now, sustainability is becoming ever more important for every one of us. It’s something we try to practice in our daily choices.

Our awareness changes our shopping habits too. Now we expect accountability and transparency from companies.

It’s no longer enough that they provide good products. Businesses have to have sound environmental practices, too.

But how do we really know if a business is eco-conscious or not?

Well, we have to learn more about the term: greenwashing.

What is Greenwashing?

Oxford Dictionary defines greenwashing as: [uncountable] (disapproving) activities by an organization intended to make people think it is concerned about the environment, even if it’s real business actually harms the environment.

The term has been around since the 1960s. Hotels first devised a practice that’s still used today: placing notices in hotel rooms that encourage guests to reuse towels. It’s greenwashing because the hotels were after lowering laundry costs, not about protecting the environment.

Around the same time, energy brand Chevron was promoting their “People Do” commercial. It features imagery of wildlife and how people in the desert (oil cities) can support these animals. This – while the company was actually violating the Clean Air Act and were sued for dumping toxic chemicals in Santa Monica Bay!

Perhaps the biggest greenwashing case of our recent time is that of automotive giant, Volkswagen. They were able to dupe emission tests by fitting vehicles with a “defeat device”, a software that can adjust emission levels right when it is being tested.

As if this weren’t enough, the brand promoted their vehicles as “Clean Diesel” models – even if the engines were creating 40 times over the allowed limit for pollutants!

Why do businesses do this?

Simple. Eco-friendly brings big profits.

According to Nielsen, majority of consumers all over the world say they are ready to change consumption habits to reduce the impact on the environment. Around 81% strongly agree that companies should step up and practice social responsibility.

Millennials, Gen Z and Gen X have the highest support, but the older generations aren’t far behind.

And our concern for the planet translates to spending. In fact, nearly half (41%) of consumers are willing to pay more for products that are made of all-natural or organic ingredients.

Greenwashing also helps generate a positive brand image. As social media has shown us, creating a persona is easier than actually practicing it.

This applies to companies as well. Claiming to be environmentally friendly is instantly more appealing to consumers.

There are millions (literally) of reasons why companies resort to greenwashing.

Unfortunately, not only is it misleading consumers, it also distracts us from real solutions.

Climate change, plastic waste, air pollution and animal extinction – greenwashing presents false information that could exacerbate our already serious eco issues instead of addressing them.

Of course, not all businesses are doing it on purpose.

Many may not have the expertise to know what really constitutes sustainable actions and what does cause harm.

In any case, we have the power as consumers to understand what greenwashing is. This’ll help us discern – and call out – companies that are guilty of such practices.

How Do You Know It’s Greenwashing?

A previous study conducted by TerraChoice investigated the claims of a total of 4,744 products marketed as “green” across US and Canada. What did they find? A whopping 95% of these products were greenwashing!

How does greenwashing look like?

Here are the 7 Sins of Greenwashing explained:

Hidden Trade-Off: Saying a product or process as “green” in a very narrow way. The other, more problematic attributes of the product are not addressed.

For instance, a product is immediately touted as eco-friendly because it is made of recycled material. What the company doesn’t clarify is that manufacturing the product requires more energy.

No Proof: Claiming environmental benefits without providing any meaningful and verifiable certifications (i.e. cosmetics that claim to be 100% organic without supporting data).

Vagueness: Marketing with terms that are too broad, too convoluted, or unspecific. For example, an all-natural cleaner can still contain natural but toxic ingredients.

Other phrases to watch out for include: recyclable (the product or packaging or both?), eco-friendly, non-toxic, all new and improved, etc. Companies may be too liberal in their use of these terms without elaboration and certifications.

Irrelevance: Stating something as technically true, but should no longer be a distinguishing factor for the product or company. One example is a cleaner that is CFC-Free – even if CFCs are banned by law already.

Lesser of Two Evils: Positioning the product as “greener” when the whole category may be environmentally harmful as a whole (i.e. clean coal or clean-burning natural gas).

Fibbing: Falsehoods. Claiming something to be true when it is not (oh, you know, straight-up lying!)

An example would be to say that an appliance is Energy Star certified when it is not. Or to claim that a clothing brand sources ethical local wool when they don’t.

Worshipping False Labels: Creating phrases and images that make buyers assume it underwent third-party green screening processes (e.g. “vegan choice” instead of PETA-certified or Vegan.org certified).

How to Avoid Greenwashing and Know What You’re Buying

Previous findings point out that greenwashing is rampant. Big or small, businesses can commit the so-called sins above. It takes a keen eye to know which brands to trust.

Here are a few ways you can avoid greenwashed products:

1. Be familiar with the existing certifications, especially for products that are relevant to your home

hese certifications are provided by legitimate organizations for health, ingredient, and environmental standards. What’s more, these third parties often check the entirety of a product’s manufacturing process.

Key certifications to look for include: USDA Certified Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Cruelty Free, Energy Star, EPA Safer Choice, Fair Trade, TRUE Zero Waste, Bluesign, to name a few.

Don’t rely on labels provided by the manufacturers themselves. They won’t be as impartial as third party organizations. And you might be forgetting that there’s the Worshipping False Labels tactic.

There’s even a tool from Consumer Reports if you want to verify a label.

2. Go to their website

Almost all info about anything can be found online, and this applies to products and brands, too.

If you spot an interesting product with a green claim, verify that claim first before buying.

If the info is comprehensive, and if it’s backed by certifications, it’s legit. If it’s pretty vague, it’s greenwashing.

3. Check the numbers

It’s never a bad thing if big corporations are willing to make changes to reduce their impact on the environment. But does the brand actually mean it?

Is the brand claiming eco-friendliness only in select aspects of their business?

One example of this is fast fashion brand H&M. They’ve marketed the Conscious Collection, a line that offers sustainable textiles recycling bins for used clothes. But according to their partner, I:Collect, only 35% of what’s collected is actually recycled.

These days, every company can claim that “we are working for highest sustainability standards” or “SDGs are part of our priority.” It’s easy to say these things. It’s much more difficult to back them up with real numbers.

4. Get a feel for the imagery

Greenwashing isn’t always literal, but in a lot of cases it totally is.

Green wipes, green diapers, green detergents – guess they watched that old Chevron ad and knew that showcasing nature is too effective to pass!

Look at the advertising, the slogans, the packaging, and the branding imagery.

Do they use green hues everywhere? Do you see idyllic, nature scenes in the ads that aren’t even related to the product?

Is the packaging designed in natural hues but is non-biodegradable / non-efficient?

Is it creating an all-natural effect when you kind of know that the product and packaging aren’t sustainable at all?

The Takeaway

Greenwashing has been here for decades, and it likely will be as pervasive as ever – maybe even more so now, because consumers prefer brands that mitigate environmental damage.

We are the consumers, and so we have the right to transparency. But the reality is, we won’t always be given that. What we can do then, is arm ourselves with knowledge about greenwashing tactics. If consumers are all jointly aware, we can affect the changes we want businesses to manifest.

Do you have any more tips to share to help avoid greenwashing? What are some campaigns that struck you as either blatant or subtle greenwashing? Help us know in the comments.

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