Making environmentally friendly buying choices isn’t always as simple as it should be. Sometimes, your eco-friendly choices turn out to be not as beneficial to the environment as you first thought!
By understanding greenwashing, you’ll have the tools to hold companies accountable and make sure your money is going towards a good cause.
What is Greenwashing?
Examples of Greenwashing
How to Spot Greenwashing
Greenwashing vs Green Marketing
Dangers of Greenwashing
What You Can Do
WHAT IS GREENWASHING?
Greenwashing is when companies, brands and individuals attempt to create the false impression that they are more environmentally sound than they truly are.
Since concepts like sustainability and eco-friendliness are increasingly seen as attractive qualities, companies capitalise on consumer’s good intentions by deceiving them into believing they are their products are ‘green’.
Companies create a green image by suggesting that their products or services are more natural, healthier, free from chemicals, recyclable or less wasteful than their competitors are.
Greenwashing can take many forms. Sometimes it can be blaringly obvious while other times, greenwashing can insidiously infiltrate the public’s perception of a brand. Company’s use marketing, advertisements, social media, and even packaging as part of their tactics.
The problem is that a lot of time, energy and money goes towards convincing consumers of the company’s ‘greenness’, rather than making any significant effort to doing the work that actually makes their products, processes or services better for the environment.
Ultimately, if a company cares more about using a green image to increase their profits rather than actually attempting to benefit the environment, it will likely be guilty of greenwashing.
EXAMPLES OF GREENWASHING
- The original example of greenwashing and the example that triggered the term was the infamous hotel towels incident. Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing after visiting a hotel in the 1980s. There, he found a notice in the hotel room asking guests to save the environment by reusing towels.
Nowhere else in the hotel’s operations and services were there any efforts to benefit the environment. While the concept of reusing towels is beneficial to the environment, the hotel used it as a front to reduce their laundry costs.
- One of the most manipulative examples of greenwashing is BP’s creation of the customer carbon footprint calculator. While BP were busy drilling for millions of barrels of oil and causing wildlife catastrophes by spilling it into the ocean, they encouraged their customers to figure out how to change their lifestyle to reduce their impact on the environment.
This sly campaign took the limelight off BP’s environmental transgressions and instead put the blame on the consumer. Individual actions are an important part of fighting climate change, but significant environmental impact comes overwhelmingly from large and powerful corporations like BP.
- Most major brands are guilty of fast fashion crimes; however, few have been under as much spotlight as H&M. The retail giant has thousands of stores across the world selling a huge amount of clothes at relatively cheap prices.
Recently, H&M released a ‘conscious collection’ line of clothing, claiming that every piece was made from recycled or sustainably sourced material. Unfortunately, critics have pointed out that some of the ‘sustainable’ materials chosen take as much energy to produce as unsustainable options. Additionally, clothing labelled as recycled contains only up to 50% recycled material, less in many cases.
The fashion industry is home to some of the biggest culprits of greenwashing. From the environmental impact of the fabrics used to the working rights of the garment manufacturers, fast fashion has a lot to answer to.
One of the ways to opt out of fast fashion is to buy products that are designed to last for a long time. Additionally, opt for genuinely sustainable fabrics with verified methods of production such as Tencel™.
Companies that use greenwashing are focused solely on the profit. They believe that marketing a product as sustainable or ethical will convince more people to buy it or allow them to sell it at a higher price.
This belief is supported by studies such as the Nielsons Global Corporate Sustainability report which shows that 66% of consumers are willing to spend more on a sustainable product. This figure rises to 73% in generation Z shoppers, indicating an increasing future demand for sustainability.
Companies see this trend and can decide to either make sustainable and ethical products or create the illusion of creating sustainable and ethical products. Pretending to be sustainable is almost always easier and cheaper for brands to pull off and has a big pay-off!
HOW TO SPOT GREENWASHING
Greenwashing companies are clever. Using marketing ploys and advertising techniques, they can easily manipulate consumers into believing their products are green. Savvy customers need to know what to look out for.
One of the reasons greenwashing is so convincing is because of the unchecked use of terms like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. There are no legal definitions of terms like these which allows companies to use them as they like, without having to provide proof to back them up.
To separate green products from greenwashing, look for facts and data to back up these terms. If a product is labelled ‘natural’, look for the ingredients that substantiate this claim. If a company claims sustainability, ignore them unless they outline how exactly their operations or materials are sustainable.
Even the term ‘organic’ should be questioned. If a product genuinely contains organically grown materials, they will have the certifications to back it up! And make sure you know your certifications. Some companies make up their own certifications and plaster them across their products when in reality, these endorsements are meaningless.
Another greenwashing tactic involves using complicated jargon or meaningless expressions that only experts could understand. These companies rely on confusing customers so that they don’t know exactly what they are buying and assume its ‘greenness’ from images and packaging.
It’s not just language that pedals greenwashing. Brands will also use suggestive images, labelling and product naming to evoke a green and environmentally responsible façade. It’s important to look beyond the marketing of a product and find the facts.
When considering whether a product is greenwashed, it helps to look at the overall behaviour of the company selling it. If it seems strange that an oil company is selling ‘sustainable’ products, that’s because it is! The products are an attempt to stay in public favour without having to do any real work towards sustainability.
You can spot the greenwashing of a company or brand by looking at the reasons behind their actions. If a company does a grand gesture to benefit environmental causes, are they doing it because they care or because they want to hide their environmental impact? Similarly, are environmental decisions made proactively or are they done for selfish reasons like keeping their customer base pleased?
GREENWASHING VS. GREEN MARKETING
As the demand for less environmentally damaging products increases, so does the amount of more genuinely sustainable and eco-friendly products. These products are entering the market place just like any other and need to be marketed and advertised in order to sell.
The question is how the consumer can tell the difference between greenwashing and green marketing of green products and brands. Luckily, there are a few key signs to look out for that can prove the legitimacy of a sustainable brand or product.
- The brand is often open and honest about how they operate. On websites, labels and in packaging, there is likely to be clear information in plain language that explains how the product was made and how it got into your hands.
- Any environmental or sustainability claims are backed up by facts, details and data. Remember, truly ‘green’ companies want to prove their legitimacy while greenwashed brands try to cover it through a green smokescreen.
- Look for industry recognised certificates and government backed standards. If the materials the product is being made from are genuinely sustainable, there will be certifications to prove it.
- Check the packaging! Green brands will extend their values to their product packaging and will limit the amount of packaging used and use recycled or recyclable materials.
- Check how the product will be disposed. Is this product designed to last for a very long time? Can it be repaired rather than replaced? Is it recyclable? If a brand genuinely wants to create a green product, they will focus on how that product will affect the earth both now and when it has passed its use by date.
DANGERS OF GREENWASHING
So, why is greenwashing such a big problem? First of all, companies should be held accountable for their attempts to deceive consumers. However, greenwashing can have much more widespread and damaging effects.
When brands convince consumers to buy their greenwashed products and customers find out that their socially conscious efforts have been in vain, it can cause a distrust of green marketing that damages the legitimacy of genuine green brands and products.
Consumers that buy greenwashed products are doing so because they believe their money is going towards a cause they believe in. Greenwashing redirects cashflow from legitimate sustainable and ethical businesses and instead sends it to companies that don’t actually help to benefit the environment.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
When it comes to detecting and fighting greenwashing, knowledge really is power. Once you know what to look out for to separate green products from greenwashing, you can vote through your consumer choices.
Driving up the demand for sustainable and ethically made products is a certain way to ensure their prevalence in the market is secure and increasing. When possible, try to opt for the more sustainable option. You may not think your individual choice has much effect overall, but as more and more people choose sustainably, green companies will become more accessible and prevalent.
Word of mouth has always been a powerful tool for spreading information. With social media, that voice is amplified. If you hear about a company that has been greenwashing their brand or product, social media can be used to spread awareness and hold these companies accountable.
Social media and exposure can also be a great way to amplify and advertise your favourite brands and products that are actually green. The more people know about genuinely sustainable and ethical products, the more popular they will become!