Walk through the grocery store today, and you might be surprised by the number of sustainability-minded brands in sight. Product labels like “pure and natural”, “made with recycled ingredients” and “good for the environment” might look impressive, but do they deliver what they promise?
To find out the facts, it’s important to understand exactly what companies have to gain by “greenwashing” their products- or appearing better for the planet than they are. These brands want your money, and they’re willing to help you see their products in a little greener light if that’s what it takes to get it.
Will you fall for their tricks? Developing a better understanding of greenwashing will help you determine what claims are correct, and which run dangerously false.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is an aptly named marketing strategy for portraying products or services as more environmentally friendly then they are.
The term is a play on whitewashing, which is defined as glossing over potentially damaging information or evidence of wrongdoings by focusing only on positive details instead. Greenwashing follows the same premise but specifically pertains to the environment.
The classic example of greenwashing are the signs in hotels that ask you to reuse your towels and sheets to ‘help protect the environment by saving water.’ While this practice certainly saves some water, most hotels aren’t watching their resource consumption nearly as carefully when it comes to irrigation or investing in low-flow showerheads. Rather, these signs allow them to both improve their eco-image and coax customers to help them lower their laundry costs.
Once you know what to look for, greenwashing is all around. Think of the oil and gas company advertising their investment in ‘clean energy production’ when these “investments” make up less than one percent of their business expenses.
Another example is paper products. Napkin and toilet paper brands often proclaim that they are “made with recycled materials,” but you’ll have to read the fine print to see that only a minuscule percentage of the paper complies. Likewise, grocery stores will often spend significant amounts of money advertising their “plastic bag recycling program” without investing in ways to eliminate the need for single-use plastic bags in the first place.
A strong sign of greenwashing is that the company involved will benefit from convincing you that they care about the environment. This often means that part of their existing reputation implies the opposite, and they’d prefer to keep that information hidden.
A History Of Greenwashing
“Greenwashing” first entered the public vocabulary in the 1980s as a response to outrageous ad campaigns commissioned by energy companies that focused on their concern for the environment.
The classic example is Chevron’s “People Do” ad campaign, a series of commercials and print ads that highlighted the ways that Chevron employees took care of cute animals like birds, bears, and butterflies. Meanwhile, the company itself was spilling oil in wildlife refuges and violating the EPA Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Even so, these commercials effectively changed public opinion of the company as an environmental polluter, and they earned Chevron the reputation as the gold standard of greenwashing.
By the 1990s, customers were growing increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the companies they supported, and greenwashing practices began to gain public attention. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, and its prevalence has been increasing ever since.
Why do companies play fast and loose with sustainability facts? For one, the practice is highly profitable. A 2015 Neilsen poll showed that consumers are willing to pay between 66-72% more from environmentally sustainable products, allowing brands to tap into a multi-hundred billion dollar industry.
But isn’t any move towards sustainability better for the environment? In truth, greenwashing often does far more damage than good for the planet at large.
The Problem With Greenwashing
It’s easy to assume that greenwashing is a harmless form of competition between companies, but the facts show that the practice is a serious problem.
Not only does rampant greenwashing erode consumer trust in eco-minded advertising, but it dilutes the claims of companies with actual environmentally sustainable practices. Confused customers are less likely to seek out sustainable products, which hurts the planet in the long run.
Likewise, greenwashing encourages customers and the companies themselves to ignore the big picture when it comes to environmental initiatives. A hardware store spending time and money to advertise for their battery recycling program is getting credit for sustainability, even though they sell thousands of products filled with chemicals that pollute the environment. This misdirection makes it easier for companies to shift their customers’ attention from their poor environmental record to the details they prefer to highlight.
Another concern of greenwashing is that it puts the responsibility of change on the end customer (“buy THIS product if you care about the environment”) rather than on the companies causing the problems in the first place. Not only does this practice promote the corporate agenda, but it also keeps the focus of power in the environmental movement with the individual, not the community or a regulatory system.
12 Top Greenwashing Techniques
There’s a lot of money to be made selling to an eco-conscious audience, so spotting evidence of greenwashing is far from easy. Understanding these common techniques will help you separate eco-friendly claims from the truth.
1. Further Information Is Hard To Find
Does the company make big claims in their advertisements but fail to mention any hard data to back them up? If the brand isn’t telling you how to find more information, they might be greenwashing their claims.
2. Misleading Wording In Advertisements
Does packaging include words like “natural,” “organic ingredients included” or “contains botanical ingredients” without going into detail or showing certifications? The words might be legally meaningless and misrepresent the product. After all, lead and arsenic are “all-natural ingredients,” but that doesn’t make them good for you- OR the environment.
3. Equating “Good for You” & “Good for the Environment”
The wellness industry has done a stellar job of equating personal health with environmental consciousness. For instance, water bottle brands often imply that they aren’t environmentally damaging because drinking water is better for your health than soda. In truth, both practices are terrible for the planet.
4. Inaccurate Visuals & Graphics
Advertisers often use natural imagery to imply that a product is close to nature, but the truth is often more nuanced. Most butter doesn’t come from pasture-raised cows, even if the packaging tries to tell you so.
5. Vague Claims
Does the product claim to be good for the environment without sharing facts or numbers about the details? Claims like “better for the environment than leading brands” are suspect if they aren’t backed up with evidence of third-party certification.
6. Masks Critical Information
A common form of greenwashing is to make environmental-conscious claims while leaving out the less convenient For instance, snack packages might claim to be “100 percent compostable,” but fail to mention they can only break down in high heat conditions of an industrial-scale composter.
7. Misrepresents Scale Of Benefits
It’s standard practice for greenwashing companies to list the term “recyclable” without elaboration. While this implies to consumers that the entire product can be reused, the term often refers to a tiny portion or even just the packaging.
8. Misrepresentation Of Numbers
Percentages are often used to skew perception of how sustainable a product is. For instance, products advertised as “made with 50% more recycled material than before” may have gone from 50% recycled material to 75%, or merely from 2% to 3%. The proportions are equivalent, but the difference for its environmental impacts are extreme.
9. Deceptive Benefits For Standard Use
Sometimes eco-friendly claims are legitimate, but virtually meaningless if the product is used as intended. For instance, trash bags might be labeled as 100% recyclable. Unfortunately, these bags are rarely, if ever, sorted out from the trash they contain and recycled separately. While the bag might be recyclable, it’s still likely to land in the dump.
10. Hiding Tradeoffs
Brands works hard to show off any eco-friendly traits while distracting customers from the overall environmental costs of their product. For instance, “100% recycled paper” might seem like a boon for the environment until you take note of all the chlorine and bleach used to create it.
11. Irrelevant Claims
Brands often rely on consumer ignorance to make claims that look impressive while being meaningless. For instance, a poultry producer might claim their birds were raised without hormones. While this sounds impressive, it has been a legal requirement for ALL U.S. poultry producers since 1959.
12. Fake Labeling
If a brand is particularly unscrupulous, they might use a self-created label or a sustainability logo designed to give the impression that a third party endorses them. Unless the logo is affiliated with a genuine environmental organization like USDA Organic, Energy Star, the Forest Stewardship Council or others that are similar, it’s most likely legally meaningless.
Four Tips To Help Prevent Greenwashing
You’ll start seeing signs of greenwashing everywhere once you know what to look for. With a plan in place for identifying sustainable purchases, you can avoid less scrupulous brands and ensure your money goes to the companies committed to the health of the planet. Following these tips will improve your ability to prevent greenwashing for good.
Read Labels Carefully
Get familiar with environmental certification labels and logos so that you can quickly identify them on qualifying products. A good summary of the best certifications can be found at EcoLabelIndex.com.
Use The Internet
Unsure whether to believe a company’s eco-friendly claims? Google their name and ‘environment’ and see what comes up. Any controversy or lawsuits should come up quickly. You can also determine the greenwashing rank of products and companies with the Greenwashing Index.
Don’t Get Distracted By Irrelevant Facts
Sure, a ‘fuel-efficient’ SUV sounds better than standard models, but is there room for ANY SUV in an environmentally conscious life? Don’t let greenwashing distract you from the overall impact of your purchases.
One of the best ways to prevent greenwashing is to teach others how to avoid it too. If you catch a brand relying on the strategy, call them out on the Greenwashing Index so that others can be aware of it.
One of the best ways to prevent greenwashing is to prevent your money from going to companies that practice it. By bringing awareness to the issue and awarding brands who put the environment first, you can make a significant difference for the planet.