Greenwashing

September 10, 2019

Greenwashing: What It Is and How To Avoid It

When we're making decisions about what we buy, we tend to lean towards Earth-friendly products when given the option. We're even willing to spend a little more on those products when we believe them to be ethical and sustainable. Companies have realised they can cash in on our preferences by exaggerating the benefits of their products, making them appear more eco-friendly without changing anything about how they were made or what they're made from - a tactic referred to as greenwashing. On the outside, products appeared environmentally-friendly and sustainably-made but don't actually live up to their claims.

Are companies going 'green' or are they just selling you the idea of green practices while ignoring sustainability? I want to explore greenwashing: what it is, why it's a problem, and how to identify it so you know what to avoid as a consumer.



What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing tactic used by brands to mislead or deceive its customers on how its business, products, and/or services affect the environment. Greenwashing is used to appeal to consumers' who care about the environment, by trying to make themselves or their goods sound more eco-friendly or environmentally-safe than they actually are so that consumers believe they are ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly.

Greenwashing involves unsubstantiated claims and the use of misleading green images or terms to suggest a product is all-natural, eco-friendly, and safe. They run advertisements and campaigns to show how their company is committed to caring for the environment, or appear to be making changes to their practices which will protect the planet. These claims are false and are used to appeal to consumers' beliefs and emotions in order to be perceived as good so that they maintain or increase their sales.

Greenwashing is when a brand spends more money on convincing you they're eco-friendly than actually being eco-friendly. The goal is to mislead consumers about what a product is and how it was made by glossing over unethical and unsustainable practices.



Why greenwashing is a problem

Brands use greenwashing to convince us they care about the same things we do. They want us to believe their products are safe for us and the environment, and their practices are ethical not exploitative. 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.

As conscious consumers, we want to live our values by supporting companies who are doing good by providing us with ethical products and services. If we don't think a brand is ethical or sustainable, we're likely to switch to one that is. Greenwashing helps unethical brands convince us they're making changes; that it's OK to keep buying from them because they've got our best interests at heart. The reality is, they haven't changed at all. They're still exploiting their workers and damaging the environment but they've convinced us through clever marketing they're not.

It's easier for a business to spend money on marketing themselves as green or eco-friendly rather than actually implementing this into their business practices. So if they can convince you their products are environmentally-safe and sustainable without changing anything, they will. That's why greenwashing is a huge problem.



Greenwashing: What It Is and How To Avoid It

These brands are not greenwashing.


How to identify greenwashing

Greenwashing can be tricky to spot. The biggest giveaway is if there is no supporting evidence to back up the brand's claims or a lack of transparency. A brand who is truly ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly will have detailed information on their practices including workers rights, factories, and manufacturing processes. A lack of information, ambiguous terms and phrases, and an unwillingness to provide more details when asked indicates a brand is 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 certifications and endorsements, and be wary of buzzwords. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.


Don't be swayed by 'green imagery'. Classic greenwashing involves green imagery on packaging to convince consumers that the product inside is Earth-friendly. Genuine eco-friendly brands use less overt, simpler packaging, whereas unethical brands lay it on thick with heavy imagery to make their product appear more wholesome and appealing. Always look for genuine certifications and check the ingredients list.

Vague information is a bad sign. 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 on what makes it ethical, sustainable, or eco-friendly, then you've got a problem. Genuine green brands will shout about their credentials and won't hide anything from you. Look at the fine print or on a brand's website and if you can't find detailed information about their product or practices, you know they're greenwashing.

Watch out for false and misleading claims. Brands like to give credibility to their products by including snippets of information that, at first glance, make them seem like they're a good choice. In particular, look for the use of "cruelty-free" and "not tested on animals" or "Earth-friendly" and "recyclable/compostable/biodegradable". These terms are meaningless on their own without further information. Double check brands on their claims, don't take them at face value.

Look for fake labels and certifications. As consumers, we've learned to look out for specific indicators that help us identify whether a product is ethically-made, cruelty-free, and Earth-friendly. Packaging will often feature bunny logos and leaf icons, which is an attempt by brands to convince you their products are cruelty-free and Earth-friendly. Any brand can put a bunny or leaf logo on their product but that doesn't mean they're legit. Look for genuine certifications to ensure the products you're buying are in fact what they say they are.

Be wary of hidden trade offs. This happens when a brand introduces a token act of being environmental, sustainable, or ethical, while having an unappealing trade off. For instance, promoting their 'recyclable packaging' while ignoring the environmental impact of the product itself. Genuine sustainable and eco-friendly products will provide information on manufacturing from worker conditions, energy use, emissions, water and air quality; unethical brands will not. Don't let one positive aspect allow you to overlook the bigger picture.


Look out for these 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 anything 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. Ethical Consumer and Good On You can help you identify which brands to avoid.

  • All-natural
  • Bio
  • Biodegradable
  • Botanical
  • Chemical-free
  • Clean
  • Compostable
  • Cruelty-free
  • Earth-friendly
  • Eco-friendly
  • Extracts
  • Free-range
  • Gentle
  • Green
  • Happy
  • Healthy
  • Herbal
  • Mineral
  • Natural
  • Non-hazardous
  • Non-toxic
  • Organic
  • Paraben-free
  • Plant-based
  • Plant-derived
  • Plastic-free
  • Pure
  • Quality
  • Raw
  • Recyclable
  • Reusable
  • Sulfate-free
  • Sustainable
  • Vegan-friendly
  • Wholesome



Examples of greenwashing


McDonald's Paper Straws. McDonald's switched to paper straws last year but it turns out the straws can't be recycled due to the UK's recycling infrastructure. But even if they could be recycled, the cups they serve their drinks in are plastic-lined. So switching to paper straws without changing the cups themselves didn't really solve the problem of single-use plastic, it was simply an attempt to make McDonald's look good.

The Happy Egg Co. Free Range Eggs. Whether chickens are free range or battery hens, male chicks are considered an unwanted byproduct of egg production and are killed by either grinding them up alive or suffocating them. There's nothing happy about that. Consumers should be aware that this is what they're paying for when buying eggs, regardless of whether they're from caged or free range hens. Unsurprisingly, The Happy Egg Co. (and any other company that sells eggs) keep this information to themselves.

L'Oreal "Vegan-Friendly" Hair Care. L'Oreal is mislabeling its products and marketing them as vegan-friendly despite the brand testing on animals. They're taking advantage of the lack of laws surrounding labels and wording on products, and their customers desire to buy products they believe do not cause harm to animals. If you want to make sure the products you're buying are cruelty-free and vegan-friendly, look for the certified stamps and logos of the Leaping Bunny and Vegan Society.

H&M's Recycling Scheme. H&M introduced a recycling scheme where you can take back your old textiles in exchange for a coupon - to buy more clothes. Not only would it take H&M up to 12 years to use just 1,000 tons of clothing waste; the majority of your unwanted clothes are sent to developing countries where they're unable to be processed. Meanwhile, H&M are producing the same volume of new clothes in a matter of days. It's a scheme to convince you H&M are doing something to help reduce clothing waste when in reality they're still a huge part of the problem.



What to do about greenwashing

If it's a brand, I leave a comment on their social media posts pointing out their greenwashing tactics and explaining why it's problematic. This is more about leaving information for other people to read so they can be informed about the manipulative tactics being used to mislead their customers. If it's an influencer, I always give people the benefit of the doubt by presuming they're unaware of the greenwashing they're a part of. I'll send a DM explaining why the campaign they're working on or product/brand they're sharing is problematic and include links to more information.




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