Green or greenwashing? What is greenwashing and how to identify it

Consumers deserve transparency about the products they buy and where they buy them from. About 72 per cent of consumers believe that transparency is highly important and would switch to brands that offer more in-depth data.

However, some companies favour profit over an honest relationship with consumers. One of the main ways companies draw in large audiences is by using manipulative marketing techniques to present false information, especially when it comes to their environmental impact.

Greenwashing is a deceitful marketing scheme in which a company uses false data and language to present itself as environmentally friendly.

Jay Westerveld, an environmentalist, coined the term greenwashing in his 1986 essay regarding the “save the towel” movement in hotels. The movement involved reusing towels to save more energy by reducing the number of laundry loads. However, this movement had little environmental benefit compared to the financial benefit hotels got by reducing their laundry costs.

Unfortunately, there are many other examples of greenwashing. In 2018, food and beverage company Nestle stated that they are aiming for 100 per cent recyclable or reusable packaging by 2025. Despite this, they have yet to share meaningful data, such as a clear timeline to show their progress.

Similar to other greenwashing incidents, big companies attract consumers with sustainable goals but fail to follow through with data and actions.

The purpose of greenwashing is not only to attract customers and enhance brand reputation but also to cover up a company’s environmentally harmful actions.

The Nestle example demonstrates this tactic. Although they promised sustainable packaging in 2018, they were among the world’s top polluters in 2022.

Companies that exercise greenwashing underestimate how much consumers hold them accountable for their promises. Customer satisfaction levels drop 1.34 per cent when a company’s sustainability goals and commitments outweigh its actions.

Furthermore, greenwashing is a dishonest practice that alienates customers. In 2023, The Roundup reported that 78 per cent of consumers believe sustainability is important. Consumers also stated that they would make a conscious effort to find out more about a company before purchasing its products.

Conscious consumerism is one of the ways to identify greenwashing. Companies that are actually working towards sustainability often work with third-party certification providers that evaluate and assign a score based on how environmentally friendly they are.

Companies that receive good scores will openly advertise it and make it publicly accessible. Meanwhile, those that don’t work with third-party certification providers do the opposite. The rule of thumb is if a company that claims to be environmentally sustainable does not share studies, deadlines and data that prove them to be, they likely are not.

Examples of third-party certification providers that substantiate how green a business is include Green Business Bureau, LEED and B Corp.

Another way to spot greenwashing is through vague language and misleading imagery. Vague language includes words such as green, natural and sustainable. These terms can be vague and essentially meaningless. Natural products, for example, can consist of materials that are harmful to the environment and humans, such as pesticides.

Misleading imagery includes packaging that uses healthy landscapes and earthy colours in its marketing, even though the manufacturing process or waste produced from that product harms nature.

Greenwashing is frustrating because it puts the burden on consumers to conduct background research on a company to confirm that they are truly sustainable. This is why consumers also value companies that make their environmental impacts known and never falsify data.

To make a positive environmental impact, companies must leave behind greenwashing and adopt greener practices. That way, their marketing campaigns about being environmentally friendly can be truthful instead of just empty promises slathered with a thick coat of green paint.

Can you guess which products are and are not greenwashed?

Cleaning Products

Some cleaning products are advertised as non-toxic, but this is a vague term because most cleaning products contain toxins in their ingredient list.

Water Bottles

Water bottles often showcase images of nature meanwhile, the water bottling process releases 5 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

Reusable Shopping Bags

Reusable shopping bags are more durable and can be used for several years as an alternative to plastic bags, just as advertised. Using a reusable shopping bag ensures less plastic pollution.

Bamboo cutlery

Bamboo cutlery is advertised as reusable, which is correct because it can last for years. Bamboo is also sustainably sourced because it grows quickly after being harvested.

Trash bags labelled as recyclable

No environmental benefit occurs from recyclable trash bags because they are rarely separated from other trash at the landfill and during incineration, so they cannot be reused.

Beeswax Wrap

Beeswax wrap is a zero-waste option to cover food in the fridge. Although beeswax is considered an animal by-product, beekeepers are able to refrain from harming the colony when they extract the excess honey in the wax honeycombs.

Paper straws

Paper straws are not recyclable and are not considered to be sourced and manufactured in sustainable ways.

Mushroom packaging

Making mushroom packaging consists of collecting and grounding up agricultural waste and fusing that waste together using mushroom roots. The manufacturing process is sustainable, and can be used for packaging when dried.

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