We’ve not gone into extensive detail around greenwashing on the site before, but I wanted to dig a little deeper as it’s easy to get caught in marketing fluff and think you’re doing a good thing but in real terms, you’re not making the impact you have hoped for. Don’t feel bad, we all get caught from time to time. To learn how to avoid greenwashing we need to take a look at what it really means.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a deceitful practice where a company spends more money and time on marketing themselves as environmentally sound and earth-friendly than they do on actually minimising the impact they make on the environment.
To companies who engage in greenwashing, it’s all about perception rather than taking real action.
An example of this is a fast-fashion retailer who runs extensive advertising and PR campaign around using an eco-friendly fabric in a new line and calling it a snappy earth-friendly name, but in reality, they are pushing product in the same volume as before, still treating their workers terribly and still sending loads of unsold stock to landfill either directly or indirectly. All these actions come down to profit, they are taking superficial steps to sell more to unsuspecting customers.
Examples of Greenwashing
Another example is vegan leather products that tell the world they are a sustainable alternative to real leather. When in fact the vast majority of these products are just made of cheap plastic (PU) that will eventually end in a landfill and break down into microplastics, polluting our oceans and rivers. These “fake leather” products also don’t last very long so their replacement rate is very high. There are some examples of plant-based vegan leather that is on the rise, which is great. But it still doesn’t mean that it has a smaller environmental impact in the long run due to the durability of the product.
Often buying less of a good quality product can be more environmentally friendly in the long run, than replacing it with a cheap recycled plastic option.
There are also many examples of misleading statistics and half baked scientific studies made to bamboozle you into thinking you’re doing the right thing. It’s only when you read the science in depth that you realise it’s held together with a piece of string. This “science” is then sent out to news outlets who are unable to fully scrutinise the underlying study so they too get swept up in the mumbo jumbo and preach it as gospel in the mainstream media, making us all believe that it’s factual and true. It’s so easy to get excited by the hype, even with your truest and best intentions.
How can you Avoid Greenwashing?
Most of us don’t have hours to research every purchase decision we make as life is busy and you need to pay the bills right? Here are a few ways you can identify a greenwashed product quickly:
1. Always Double Check Green Claims
You can do this by going onto their company website to see how transparent they are about their claim. Often times companies will provide brief and vague information about an environmental claim. Are they being vague yet somewhat specific rather than specific and direct? Look out for the things they are not saying.
2. Is the Claim Covering Up a Bigger Issue?
Sure using recycled plastic fabrics can be a great thing in certain applications like swimwear. But are they mistreating their workers to deliver this product at an unrealistically low price while pushing you to buy more than is needed? Do they make you feel that you need the next trendy item?
3. Bypass the Glossy Design and Read the Label
Food packaging is notorious for this. They often times put pictures of happy hens or beautiful landscapes with the farmer harvesting their produce on the packaging to make you believe the animals are treated well or food is grown sustainably. Don’t believe the image, follow the text and facts.
Some brands will also use brown and earthy tones in their packaging design to make you think the product is environmentally friendly. The only way to tell is to read the label, don’t be taken by the beautiful and deceiving design.
4. Look for Proof and Accreditation
If they are claiming organic or non-GMO, are they certified? This isn’t always foolproof as accreditations such as fairtrade in the chocolate industry are not always as amazing as you’d hope.
Accreditations are also expensive so there may be instances where small producers are still meeting the requirements, but aren’t certified due to the cost. In these cases, you will need to dig a little deeper.
5. Don’t Trust the Slogan
Be careful of companies who claim to be all-natural. In the US for e.g. the term all-natural isn’t regulated and there are no official rules for using the slogan. Companies can use ingredients with plant-derived compounds and mix it with synthetic compounds.
The only way to truly know is to check the list of ingredients and researching any listed ingredients that you’re not familiar with. Claims on product labels are more regulated in the EU, please see this page for more detail around food labelling.
6. Does it Sound too Good to be True?
Usually, if it sounds too good to be true then it is not likely to be true. Do you really think the company’s claim is legitimate? What does the company’s history tell you?
7. Read Between the Lines
Sometimes you need to read between the lines and use your common sense. E.g. a donation to an environmental project by a consumer brand does not make them sustainable.
It might just be a distraction technique to make you associate them with fluffy bunnies or saving the ocean when their product’s production process involves chopping down the amazon rainforest.
8. Google It and/or use Reddit
If you are concerned about a claim Google the brand or product along with the term greenwashed and see what comes up.
There are so many writers and researchers working to make sense of green claims that there may be information about a claim out there already.
There are also a few knowledgeable groups online you can consult with, some of the environmental subreddits on Reddit being one of them.
If you post an item the members are quick to tell you if it’s a nonsense claim, some do have their own agenda and can be very opinionated so be mindful of that.
Examples of Greenwashing
Let’s look at a few examples in recent years so you can learn how to avoid greenwashing in future. Some are difficult to spot as it’s downright lies, like the claim Volkswagen made about CO2 emissions a few years back.
There is a chance that behaviour like this will crop up from time to time, but there is almost no way to tell in cases like this so don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall for it.
Green Pan is not the best sustainable cookware after all. On the company’s website, GreenPan claimed that its nonstick ceramic cookware is “green” because it emits 60% less carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process of its coatings.
It also claimed that its non-stick coating is toxin-free. But it’s now facing a class-action lawsuit because of alleged false advertising claims as the coating seemingly emits toxins. It sounded too good to be true and it might have been, but the lawsuit is still ongoing with no final outcome just yet. Only time will tell how greenwashed the GreenPan really is.
Kauai Coffee claimed that their coffee pods are 100% compostable, but the pods will only decompose at industrial facilities and not in your backyard compost pile. This important fact was hidden in teeny tiny small print on their ads and they have since been asked to make it clear that it’s not certified for backyard composting. That’s a little misleading, but not entirely untrue, you can see the advert here.
H&M Recycling Scheme
The H&M recycling scheme that was introduced a few years back where you can return old textiles in exchange for a coupon to buy more stuff was a whole lot of marketing mumbo jumbo. Turns out the majority of the unwanted clothes were sent to developing countries where it ended up in landfill because they were unable to process it.
Their recent announcement about their Conscious Collection reeks of the same hogwash. It talks about the fabrics being more sustainable, not fully sustainable just a little more than it was yesterday (which is not a lot) and says nothing about its other failures. When it comes to textile recycling, you might want to look elsewhere.
McDonald’s and their Paper Straws
McDonald’s switched all their plastic straws for paper straws a while ago. But the new straws can’t be processed in UK recycling facilities. These straws are also served alongside plastic-lined cups and lids. Perhaps someone can give them a gold star for trying…
Many well-known brands such as Kraft, Hovis and Walkers underwrite the costs of TerraCycle to help recycle their packaging. Which in theory sounds like a great idea, but it doesn’t incentivise these companies to reduce packaging at all. It is also notoriously difficult to get to some of the TerraCycle facilities as not all products are accepted at each facility. In our case, our closest facility for KP packaging is two towns away. Acuvue can be recycled at the local Boots. Hovis is at yet another location and for any pet food packs, the location is different again.
It’s a painful process and I’m sure not many people are dedicated enough to go to the lengths of recycling these packages at their unique locations – doesn’t sound very green to me!
However, what it does feel like is that they are trying to make it so difficult to recycle that we’ll give up so that there is nothing to recycle after all. It also does not make the product inside the packaging very green either.
I’m sure once the items reach a facility it is recycled as expected, but the process of getting items to them could be more straight forward and practical for the average person, until this is resolved this does feel like greenwashing to us.
What are your top greenwashing examples? Do you have any tips on how to avoid greenwashing? Please add them in the comments below.