What is Greenwashing?


 |  The Starfish

Did you know that companies can legally lie to you? According to the Cambridge Dictionary, greenwashing means, “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” Unfortunately, it is an increasingly popular business practice to increase profits by becoming more appealing to customers. According to a Nielsen poll from 2015, 66% of global consumers would pay more for environmentally friendly and sustainable products. Companies are able to take advantage of this and essentially pretend that their products, processes or actions are better for the environment than they truly are. 

How do Companies do It?

Greenwashing is all about misdirection, displaying one very specific thing which distracts from everything else that is happening. There are multiple ways that companies are able to greenwash: 

Publicizing false information 

Companies can and will lie about what they are doing behind closed doors. They may claim that their products or practices are environmentally responsible, tricking customers into thinking that they are making a sustainable purchase. The Volkswagen case is a prime example of this. The company built sensors in their cars that detected when they were being tested so they could fake emissions for environmental regulations. Luckily, they got caught, but many companies’ deceptions, unfortunately, go undetected.

Reporting something meaningless

Some organizations release corporate sustainability reports or numbers that are basically meaningless. This fuzzy reporting is a great way to pretend that the business is changing when it is actually not. Created by the company itself, these reports twist the image of the company in a positive light. They focus only on good numbers and omit any information that they want to hide. 

Promoting actions that are mandated already

Most consumers don’t closely follow business regulations, especially the environmental ones, that are required by law. Some companies attempt to make themselves look “greener” by advertising practices that are already compulsory by law. This makes the brand more appealing to customers despite doing the bare minimum. 

Making Customers Help

Businesses will sometimes engage customers in sustainability campaigns to make them seem more responsible and make it seem like they encourage others to be more sustainable. Unfortunately, these small and very targeted campaigns don’t change the way they operate their core business. For example, H&M has had a clothing recycling program where customers can place their unwanted clothes into a box in-store and receive a coupon for their next purchase. However, the fast fashion industry is a major global polluter and each new clothing purchase from H&M contributes to that.

Using Buzzwords

You may have noticed an increase lately of products in green packaging with leaves or flowers on it or words like “all-natural,” “eco-friendly.” Many of these terms are completely unregulated so products can say “natural” or “pure” on them without actually being that and they don’t even need to prove anything. This is a big problem because most consumers don’t research their products and make purchases based on the look of items.

What can you do to avoid it?

Luckily, consumers are starting to become more aware of these fake attempts at sustainability. People trust companies less, and several organizations specifically examine and certify businesses, such as B Corp. Participating in greenwashing practices affects a business’ reputation, and it becomes widespread news. Here is how to avoid greenwashing:

  1. Educate yourself about sustainability and greenwashing. Just by reading this article, you should be able to identify common greenwashing tactics. The more you understand how the environment works and what are sustainable practices, you will be able to tell which companies are faking it. 
  2. Do your research. Before buying any items, look at the company, what information they do and don’t release, what materials they use, what labour standards they follow, etc. Instead of relying on the packaging or marketing buzzwords, take the time to make sure it is a purchase you want to make. 
  3. Look for outside certifications. Do you recognize reputable labels like Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance, or B Corp certified? Learn about these essential certifications and make sure they are on the products you want to purchase.
  4. Trust your gut. Oftentimes, the claims made by organizations are too good to be true. Sometimes you know that the company produces many harmful products. If you are not sure, best to avoid purchasing anything.

Don’t be afraid to call out greenwashing when you see it and remember that companies don’t have to tell the truth or provide the full picture of their activities!