Our Comment: Your guide to greenwashing

Have you ever been convinced that you are ‘doing the right thing’ by studying the ‘environmentally friendly’ descriptions of the products or services you buy? Ever thought they might be too good to be true, or not quite sure what the ‘eco-techno blurb’ means?

Greenwashing is the act of creating a false or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology, or company practice.

The demand for green, more sustainable alternatives is increasing. What consumers aren’t always aware of is that some companies take advantage of us by greenwashing.

Is it bad?

Yes! Greenwashing is a problem because, if it works, consumers will continue to support a company believing they are doing good when really they’re not. In reality, they’re encouraging damaging habits.

It is essential to be able to differentiate a company that it is trying to become better, from one that just claims to with the intent of increasing sales. Some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about sustainability. It can also be intentionally carried out through a wide range of false marketing and PR efforts. This misdirection hinders the design and circular economy initiatives required to build a sustainable society.

How do you recognise it?

There are numerous examples of greenwashing across the world, from multi-national fossil fuel giants to corporate car manufacturers, cosmetic brands to food companies, cleaning products and financial investors. The chances are, you’ve been greenwashed (yes … even me!) and made an investment, large or small, based on environmental ‘fake-news’. Rather than waste time and indulge corporate sponsored internet battles, this article will focus on what you can do to identify it

The biggest giveaway is if there is no supporting evidence to back up a company’s claims. A brand who is truly sustainable will have detailed information on their practices. A lack of information, ambiguous terms and phrases indicates they are being deceptive. The only way to be sure you’re buying from a brand who truly cares about its workers, the planet, and you, is to thoroughly check the fine print, ask questions, research online, look for approved certifications and endorsements, and be wary of buzzwords. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Below is a handy list of considerations and things to refer to when checking for greenwash

Look behind the buzzwords : look for actual evidence that backs up any claims that a business is ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’. These terms are not controlled, so anyone can use them, so look for stamps of approval from organisations such as B Corporations, or certifications such as Fairtrade or Cradle to Grave.

  • Environmentally Friendly: What does this mean? Compared to what? Everything we consume has some kind of impact. Anyone selling something with that claim should be able to explain how it’s better for the environment than the alternatives.
  • Use your common sense: just ask yourself the obvious questions – ‘is it really sustainable to ship common product X from far-away place Y, when there are local / better alternatives?’ Or ask yourself ‘Is this all the information on the product, or am I just seeing the good news?’. Often the answers are right in front of us.
  • Make sure claims are verified by a third party: Check the website or label to see if a trusted third-party organisation has verified the brand’s claims. Look for labels that you can check are valid on verification sites like Fairtrade, Carbon Trust Standard, Forest Stewardship Council, Leaping Bunny, Marine Stewardship Council, TerraCycle and many more.
  • Biodegradable: Biodegradable products are innovative, but not always home compostable. They can also cause problems if they get into the recycling stream. To assess the impact of a product consider its whole life cycle – how was the biodegradable product made, and how were the materials for it sourced?
  • Ethical: This is a vague self-description which means different things to different people. Are they referring their entire business model, or just one or two aspects of it? If so, which ones, and do they provide clear policy statements on these?
  • Locally grown/organic/sustainably sourced: There can be many social and environmental benefits to locally-grown food (e.g. involves fewer food miles) but it’s possible to be locally grown and also produced in a way that harms the land. Food growers should have clear policies on soil conservation, minimising synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, conserving biodiversity, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the way the food is produced. Again, these can be independently certified. The Soil Association, Rainforest Alliance and EU Organic labels set standards for environmental protection, and the Forest Stewardship Council and the Marine Stewardship Council set standards for sustainable forestry and fishing. The RSPCA mark ensures that farm animals are cared for to certain standards.
  • Natural: This means almost nothing. Have you ever noticed how the word ‘natural’ is almost always used to sell products that have been through many stages of processing?
  • No nasty chemicals: Ask specifically which chemicals have been avoided, and why? The product must be made from something, so how is it better for health or the environment than the alternative?
  • Plastic-free: A popular claim, but what is used instead of plastic, and what evidence is there that this is better for the environment? Several products using plastic bottles have been switched for paper based ones, but have a plastic inner lining, rendering them unrecyclable as either paper or plastic!
  • ‘Eco’ marketing: Classic greenwashing involves green imagery on packaging to convince consumers that the product inside is eco-friendly. Genuine brands tend to use less overt, simpler packaging, whereas unethical brands use  imagery to make their product appear more green. Always look for genuine certifications and check the ingredients list.
  • Vague information: Claiming a product is ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly is as easy as putting it on the label, it doesn’t have to be true. If a product claims to be any of these things but doesn’t provide detailed information, then you’ve got a problem.
  • Eco-Blag: Look out for words, which are often used to describe genuine sustainable and eco-friendly brands and stolen by unethical brands to convince you their products are good for you and the planet. If you see these words used in marketing or on packaging, look for certifications and detailed information on their website. Don’t take what you see or read at face value. Always check where the item was made, the packaging it comes in, and what’s on the ingredients list.
  • B Corps are a new kind of business that balance purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using businesses as a force for good.

What to do about greenwashing

Firstly, identify it and don’t buy it! If you fall for greenwashing you could find yourself being part of the problem, not the solution. Greenwashing helps unethical brands convince us that it’s OK to keep buying from them because they’ve got our best interests at heart. The reality is that you are funding them to continue exploiting us, their workers and damaging the environment

Secondly, if it’s a large brand, you can leave a comment on their social media posts, pointing out their greenwashing tactics. This is more about leaving information for other people to read so they can be informed about the manipulative tactics being used to mislead customers. If it’s a smaller business, you might want to give them the benefit of the doubt by presuming they’re unaware of the greenwashing they’re a part of.

Andy Whyle, SWM Associate, on behalf of the SWM Team