Greenwashing and how to avoid it

Let’s wash some dirty marketing laundry!

Since Black Friday is coming up this week, I thought this would be a great time to talk about a rather pesky marketing trend, which makes it even harder to be a responsible consumer. Greenwashing is the general umbrella term for all sorts of “green” PR and marketing practices, which companies use to make their actions and products appear more sustainable and environmentally friendly, because they’ve figured out that this is what today’s aware and eco conscious consumers want. However, since it is still all about profit in the first place, these companies mainly want to give you a false impression that they are care and are trying to reduce their impact instead of actually doing it. The perfect examples are BP oil’s infamous personal carbon footprint calculator, which was a PR campaign that backfired so hard it became a meme and Nestlé’s empty promises to make all of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2025, when they in fact haven’t set any clear goals in that direction and had been named as one of the world’s top plastic polluters in 2020 for the third year in a row.

Even if you were not familiar with the term greenwashing before, you can see where I am going with this by now. However, since almost every company now has some sort of a climate mitigation scheme, sustainability action plan, green initiative or a reuse-reduce-recycle/closing the gap campaign, it can be hard to tell the good from the bad and nobody wants to spend ages researching the background of company practices to buy a pair of pants. So, first off, don’t sweat it if you got it wrong even after you tried to choose responsibly, because it is hard and environmental guilt can be very stressful, but there are some general guidelines to keep in mind that can help you avoid greenwashing.

#1: Look for certificates and verify the claims

The first thing you need to know is that there are currently no official standards for what words like “green, eco-friendly, sustainable, responsible, all-natural, Earth-friendly, non-toxic, plant-based, plant-derived, pure, clean, raw, healthy, low-impact, plastic-free, carbon-neutral” etc. actually mean in terms of company practices and marketing. Although there are several official certifications for fair trade, organic, eco farming and so on, other, non-certified companies also use those words without the certificate even though they shouldn’t, because it is not heavily monitored and penalised (yet). Here is a list of the major certificates concerning companies’ environmental and social impact (among which B corp is particularly cool), and it is good to be aware of those, but please keep in mind that companies without certificates are not necessarily bad.

If a company claims that their product is organic, but can’t back it up with a certificate, they really shouldn’t be using that word, but they aren’t necessarily greenwashing. That is particularly true for small, local companies, because the array of marketing terms is confusing and not everybody has the time to study all the regulations (here are some tips to avoid accidental greenwashing if you are a brand owner). However, if it is a large company with a full dedicated marketing team, they really should know better. This is where the “verify the claims” bit comes into play. If they claim that their product is manufactured in an environmentally friendly way, that should be explained on their website in simple, non-ambiguous terms. If they are offsetting their carbon footprint by donating to charities or planting trees or whatever, those should be real, traceable projects, not just a lip service sentence of “we plant trees in Somalia”. Transparency is important and if they are not willing to tell you what their sustainability strategy is with clear, well-defined timelines and goals, there probably isn’t one.

#2: Beware of green aesthetics and irrelevant claims

Have you noticed how half the packaging nowadays has a sleek, minimalist design with some sort of leaves or soothing nature patterns and it is often green in colour? There’s green toilet paper, green washing detergents, green cleaning agents, green clothing labels and so on, and they all appear super environmentally friendly from afar, but there is no substantial proof or even the basic argument for why these product versions are more sustainable than the ones in the red or blue packages. That is because our minds love associations and marketing professionals are well aware of that. So, even if something literally looks green, it doesn’t mean it is. Also, if a corrupt bank, bottled water brand or a major oil company has a cute Christmas commercial with kids, animals and pristine nature shots, it doesn’t lessen their negative impact one bit…

As for irrelevant claims, remember that example of gluten-free/vegan labels on salt, sugar and random other basic foods that could not contain gluten or animal products in any way? Well, the same goes for greenwashing. Many companies will make claims that are technically true, but completely irrelevant, like: CFC-free (CFCs have been illegal since 2010) or all-natural (just because something is natural, it doesn’t mean it is also environmentally friendly), plastic-free (but packaged in plastic) or vegan on cleaning agents etc. Use your logic and consider whether all those fancy words are actually relevant to the product instead of falling for the wonderful first impression.

#3: Shop with your head

This brings us to the final and most important point: always shop with your head. That does not just mean that you should buy only what you actually need and not get taken in by enticing discounts and clever commercials, but also that your gut feeling and logic are the best measures for recognising greenwashing.

If there’s a fashion label that has all these fancy climate action, social responsibility schemes and uses only eco-friendly, recycled materials, but releases a new collection every week at very affordable prices, there’s bound to be something shady about that and it’s just screaming fast fashion, which can’t be sustainable or fair to its workers. If, on the other hand, those items are made to order for a reasonable price and their business model checks out as slow fashion, it is usually apparent right away. By the way, it turns out that those recycled bottle fabrics major street fashions have started using may actually be worse for the environment, so the fashion world is extra confusing when it comes to greenwashing.

Similarly, if an ultra sustainable company sends out their products packaged in multiple layers of plastic, there’s something fishy about that, right? Or if they claim to be greener than their competitors, but their industry is unsustainable to begin with, then what is the point? Yes, I’m looking at you, plastic bags and single use items producers.

Greenwashing as a positive sign

As you can see, it can be hard to recognise and avoid greenwashing, but it is doable to a degree. Unfortunately price is a huge factor as always, as fair trade, low impact products always cost more than their trashy, mass consumerism alternatives, but it is good to at least be aware of what you are buying and make informed, responsible choices where you can. However, even though navigating the labyrinth of fake green claims can seem well nigh impossible, it is not all doom and gloom.

The very fact that greenwashing became a thing and is so very much on the rise, signals a significant shift in consumer mindset, because people are starting to care about the long term impact of the products they buy and that is extremely important. As consumers we have more power than we think and greenwashing is the direct free market answer to our demands for more environmentally friendly products. Obviously it is not a great answer and things are moving too slowly, but we have managed to generate this answer and even the least demanding consumers are now starting to expect the bare minimum of green practices from their favourite companies. Now we have to push and keep this momentum going, keep companies and governments accountable and force them to actually put their advertised green schemes into practice as soon as possible. We cannot let ourselves be satisfied with greenwashing smoke-and-mirrors, but it is a start.

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4 thoughts on “Greenwashing and how to avoid it

  1. I want to be green, but the green movement itself often makes it very difficult to get good information on how to trully be green. It’s like voting for the Green Party in Elections, often I’ve considered it, but never have done so. Mostly it’s because for every one or two candidtates the Green Party puts forth that have the education and professional background to truly be able to speak for what is and is not green, they allow many more naive dreamers or eco-terrorists to represent them as well. I refuse to follow naive dreamers or terrorists, so I have yet to vote for the Green Party.

    1. I completely understand you. I have a similar problem with lots of Slovenian green initiatives, because they’re against nuclear and even hydro power, but they refuse to tackle the growing energy demand problem. We don’t even have a proper Green party, because they can’t agree to form one. It’s rather difficult yes, but I think it’s important to at least know what’s going on and try to make your decisions and lifestyle as green as possible, within your budget and personal circumstances.

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