We're all familiar with the term "greenwashing," but can you explain what it means to a group of your peers, and more importantly, can you identify a company, brand, or individual engaging in it?
Most of us wouldn't. Greenwashing, by definition, is supposed to be subtle and deceitful, swindling you into believing that you're doing your part to help the environment.
We all should be able to see through greenwashing and call BS when it's presented to us. Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to solve complicated problems, and when something doesn't sound right, it almost always isn't. So, we must grasp what is greenwashing and how to avoid it. This blog is here to help you do it.
What is greenwashing exactly
Oxford English Dictionary defines greenwashing as "activities by a company or an organization intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment." A common form of greenwash, they share, is to 'publicly claim a commitment to the environment while quietly lobbying to avoid regulation.'
In the 1980s, the phrase "greenwashing" was invented to depict ludicrous environmental claims made by corporations. After three decades of evolution, the techniques have become far more sophisticated.
When it comes down to it, by definition, greenwashing is all about making you feel that a company or someone is committed to environmentally friendly and ethical methods when in fact, they aren't. Greenwashing deceives and misleads you as a consumer. Because of this, you can mistakenly believe that you're supporting environmentally beneficial items and businesses when, in fact, you're not.
Examples of greenwashing
One of the early public examples of greenwashing could have been in Jay Westerveld's 1986 essay. In the paper, he claimed the little cards you see in hotels encouraging you to reuse the towels are falsely promoted as an environmental strategy. In reality, it was designed to save work and costs. From the auto industry to technology and fashion, we already have plenty of well-known examples of greenwashing.
Probably the largest and most prominent example is the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In short, their cars were sold with a software modification in the Diesel engines, which detected when they were being tested and changed the engine performance accordingly to improve environmental test results. All while the cars emitted up to 40 times the allowed limit of nitrogen oxide in real-world situations. In the end, they admitted to cheating emissions tests and had to recall and rectify over eleven million cars. The scandal went on to encompass other carmakers, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
The world's largest IT companies are always striving to maintain a favorable image in the eyes of the public as a green company. However, many companies have "green" policies that only help them save money. In an effort to reduce the amount of e-waste produced by its products, Apple said in 2020 that the iPhone 12 will arrive without headphones or a power charger. Many people thought this measure was just a way for the company to hide its real source of e-waste, which is planned obsolescence. The brand's phones are known for being hard to fix and not supported by developers for only a few years after they're made.
Shein has been attempting to shift its reputation as a fast fashion internet storefront, even though it may be archetypal. One of Shein's campaigns highlighted its small-batch release method of just 50 to 100 units per style at a time to ensure demand before committing to large-scale production. The company also talks about its environmentally-friendly fabric printing process, automated water and power use in warehouses, and programs that make it easier for people to recycle clothes at college campuses.
These assertions, however, are entirely unproven, and the corporation provides little proof of third-party verification for them. "We do our best to source sustainable fabrics," for example, might convey noble intentions without taking any actual action. Shein's sustainability website employs a lot of words to express very little because of vague statements with no real data or proof related to them.
The negative impact of greenwashing
People are more worried than ever before about their purchases' impact on the environment. Although this is a good sign, it also suggests that some firms are cashing in on false promises. Greenwashing can mislead people into doing things that are harmful to the environment. For example, consider purchasing items from a firm that claims to be environmentally friendly. If the company's environmental claims are proven to be incorrect, you have unintentionally contributed to the destruction of the environment by supporting it.
Many cases of ecological damage caused by "greenwashing" have been reported. For example, it was suggested in a Malaysian palm oil ad in 2008 that palm oil plants offered habitats for local animals. As a result, everyone who purchased palm oil hoping that it would help protect the environment has done the exact opposite by supporting deforestation and habitat destruction.
Greenwashing brands aren't simply hindering the progress of the environmental movement; they're also harming themselves. When a product's sustainability credentials are exaggerated or misrepresented, it can damage the company's reputation. With its boasts of a 'conscious collection' and 'circular' materials, H&M has been widely criticized in recent years for labor rights violations and a recycling program that encourages increased consumption by awarding a voucher to those who meet certain spending requirements.
The multiple ways of greenwashing
Greenwashing has evolved since the early days, and it's becoming harder and harder to spot to the untrained eye. Here are some of the signs and sins to watch for when determining whether a brand is guilty of greenwashing.
While emphasizing the benefits of their products to the environment, companies often fail to disclose any drawbacks. For example, even though a vehicle's fuel economy may be touted, the manufacturer may overlook the lithium battery's mining techniques.
It's common practice for businesses to draw attention to a tiny good deed that has minimal impact on the total environmental footprint of the company. One example is that oil firms provide Dawn dish soap to clean diseased animals after their own product spills in the ocean.
A new change may be promoted as "green" by brands, yet they may choose to ignore the negative consequences of that shift. For example, straw-free lids to reduce waste can actually utilize more plastic than their predecessors.
Lack of proof
To make eco-friendly statements, a corporation may not have to provide certificates or other proof to back them up (e.g., "made with organic materials!").
To engage in greenwashing, companies might make generalizations about their sustainability that are void of specifics. 'New and better,' 'non-toxic,' and made with biodegradable components' are some examples of these claims. For instance, plastic toys may come in packages labeled "recyclable," but it's unclear if this means that the box or toy itself is recyclable.
Companies greenwash their products by making promises that are correct in theory but have little impact on the items' environmental impact. For example, it's not uncommon for companies to market their products as "CFC-free" or that they use "all-natural ingredients," with the latter being true of most papers (CFCs have been illegal in the US since 1978). Trash bags branded "recyclable" might also fall into this category, as their sole function is to be thrown away. The label indicates a benefit to the environment, but this can only be achieved if consumers empty, rinse, and recycle their garbage bags after each use.
Lesser of two evils
This type of greenwashing occurs when a product's negative aspects are overshadowed by its positive ones. An example is fuel-efficient SUVs.
Many companies use "greenspeak," which sounds great but has no formal weight behind it, to appear more environmentally friendly. Examples include terms like "natural ingredients" instead of USDA organic certification or claiming "vegan approved" instead of displaying PETA-certified vegan certification.
Using terms that are technically accurate yet mislead consumers is common practice in the greenwashing industry. It is common for companies to claim that their products are now created with 50% more recycled fibers if they increase the percentage of recycled fibers from 2% to 3%. True, although it's a little overdone as a perk.
Greenwashing may be as simple as packaging things in aesthetically pleasant ways. To suggest that the paper was gathered sustainably, a tissue firm can use green leaves to embellish its package. In some instances, little graphics that appear legitimate environmental certification insignia are really fake.
6 ways to avoid greenwashed products and services
Similar to so many things in life, when it comes to the enviromentally friendly claims businesses and other organizations make about their products and services: If it sounds too good to be true – it often is. So, there are a few signs to watch for when learning how to avoid greenwashing.
Look out for vague language
There's nothing wrong with saying something is "green," "eco-friendly," or "sustainable," but how are these claims substantiated? Use independent sources like environmental charities and organizations to find out more about a company's products and services.
If a company is making efforts to become more environmentally friendly, they'll be more than eager to provide details. For any assertions about the environment, look for numbers and explanations that make sense. A precise proportion of recycled material, for example, can let you know whether the product has a little quantity of recycled content and hence won't have much of an influence on the environment.
Check for a certification
Does the product or service have some well-known certifications? This can tell you if a product fits particular sustainability standards, such as environmental, ethical, or social responsibility. For example, a company's environmental and social requirements will be met if it is B Corp-certified.
Consider what you're not being told
The components in a smoothie may be sustainably sourced, but the packaging may not be recyclable, and the fruit may have come by plane from another country. Consumers' purchasing decisions may be influenced by what companies fail to disclose. Get as much information as you can to ensure that a product's environmental or other sustainability credentials align with the things you care most about.
Marketing goods and services as 'carbon neutral' is a specific warning flag and is typically applied to automobile gasoline, home electricity and gas, or aircraft. Consumers should approach claims that a product or service is 'carbon neutral' with care. By using 'offsets,' companies are giving the notion that they can offset their negative effect by doing good in other places, like planting trees. However, a product's environmental or climate consequences must be reduced, not offset, and such schemes are very problematic and deflect from this critical need.
Think ahead to how you'll dispose of the product
Many of us are wary of purchasing things in excess packaging or in packaging that is difficult to recycle. And what about the product itself? Before purchasing a product, make sure you know if the product's recyclability claims are based on the product itself, its packaging, or a combination of the two.
Even if the product has a lot of good things about it that are good for the environment, the best decision would be not to buy it and use something you already have instead. It takes a lot of energy and resources to design, manufacture, and distribute all things, so it's best to buy only what you need and repurpose what you can.
"Going green" sells and businesses and organizations are capitalizing on this movement by advertising as many eco-friendly benefits for their products as possible. Even when these claims often get stretched beyond the point of believability. By understanding what greenwashing is and learning to identify its signs and sins, we can hold greenwashing companies and brands accountable and ensure that those doing the right thing for the planet stand out in the crowd for their commitments and actions. This will bring the entire marketplace to a higher standard and help us make better buying choices.
We need to continue to pressure corporations to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable, and circular design solutions by changing our habits and behaviors to support more sustainable options. Yet as consumers, we don't need to figure all of these things out ourselves. Instead, we need legislation to protect us all from this. So, remember that your vote matters in the fight against greenwashing.