With an increase in the awareness about environmental issues and climate change surrounding our planet Earth and its fragile eco-systems, businesses and industry have committed themselves to employ sustainable practices from production to supply chain to consumption. Sustainability has become an essential differentiating factor that established brands and companies use to decrease their environmental impact and appeal to ‘green consumers’ or, as we call them, ‘ecothusiasts’.
Unfortunately, despite many sustainable businesses genuinely taking practical steps to reduce their environmental impact and the overall carbon footprint, many are only exploiting our environmental concern – by employing ‘greenwashing’.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a shady marketing tactic portraying a business as more sustainable than it is. It’s most frequently employed by brands that want to take a bite out of the green consumer market but don’t want to do any work to support it.
While several studies have shown that greenwashing has a detrimental effect on the company, particularly its image, some companies continue to implement this exploitative practice. Why do they do so? It’s mainly about the profit. Many of them have international supply chains, and it’s becoming easier for them to pull off lying to their customers or hiding skeletons in the closet. There are likely other factors at play too, but that still doesn’t excuse this shady practice.
How to spot greenwashing?
You’ve already taken the foremost step towards recognizing greenwashing by learning what it is. Now it’s essential to learn to spot some of its common signs – and you can’t do that without research.
Before you buy anything, we highly recommend that you take 10 or 20 minutes to sit down at your computer and research the company and its practices. Even brands that seem very sustainable businesses can just be employing greenwashing. Don’t just look at their website – see what third-party websites have to say about them. If you can’t find proof for the environmental claims a brand is making, it’s likely greenwashing.
In 2010, an organisation called Terrachoice made all of our lives easier by releasing the ‘7 sins of greenwashing’ framework, which will help you identify the different forms greenwashing could take. Watch out for these – once you learn about them, they become very likely to spot:
Hidden trade-off: a company emphasizes an eco-friendly attribute in an effort to hide something very unsustainable. For example, they may be highlighting that a garment is made from cotton because it’s a natural fibre but hide the environmental issues involved in cotton production.
- No proof: a company advertises its products based on certain eco-friendly features but provide no evidence of this being true. For example, a product may be labelled as 100% recyclable with no proof of that statement.
- Vagueness: the use of undefined words such as ‘natural’, which have an eco-friendly connotation but no actual enforced definition. Whenever you see a product labelled as ‘natural’, do your research.
- Irrelevance: stressing something that may be true but is just plain irrelevant – such as emphasizing that an item does not contain certain chemicals, even when these chemicals are banned anyways. A product may be labelled as CFC-free, yet CFCs are banned in all products.
- Lesser of two evils: emphasizing that a product is a more sustainable option, even though it falls into a category that’s unsustainable by default – such as fast fashion brands making sustainability claims.
- Fibbing: advertising something that’s simply untrue. A brand may say its clothing is made from linen when it simply is not.
- Worshipping false labels: using a fake label (for example, similar to that of Fairtrade or USDA organic) which gives the impression of third-party certification. Research any certification you see on packaging to ensure it’s genuine!