What is Greenwashing and How to Spot it

2021-05-28

 |  Sustainability

In the last few years I have been trying to live as sustainably as I can and it is hard. There are endless products and companies claiming to be sustainable and it feels impossible to determine if they are genuine. With the rise of the environmental movement more people want to buy from ethical and sustainable companies. A study by Cone Communications in 2017 found that 87% of Americans would purchase a product from an organization that advocates for an issue they care about. This has encouraged companies to greenwash their products.

Greenwashing is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “mak[ing] people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”. Companies can make insubstantial claims about how green their products are. Unfortunately there is little regulation on how truthful marketing campaigns are. I admit that I have fallen for some greenwashing. So how can you tell if it is greenwashing? I have provided some helpful tips below.

Be Aware of Buzzwords

Companies can use buzzwords to give the impression that their product is green. Some of the most common ones include; all-natural, organic, eco-friendly, non-gmo, sustainable, plant based, non-toxic, biodegradable, recyclable, green, vegan, and recycled content. These words do not always accurately represent the product because any company can use them to describe any product. For example companies can claim their product is made from “all natural ingredients” but those ingredients can still be harmful to the environment, like palm oil. 

Take Note of Branding

Companies make use of images and colour pallets to give the impression of being green. Packaging that includes idyllic images of nature and earthy colour tones can make it feel like the product is sourced and made sustainably. For example many water bottle companies advertise their water coming from natural springs along with beautiful lush images of nature, when in reality they are producing large amounts of plastic waste that often ends up in the landfill or the ocean.

Look for Data That Back Up Claims

It’s important to look for data that supports the claims made by companies. If a company is truly green then you should be able to find information on their website that shares exactly how their practices are sustainable. It is even better if the company is backed up by third party research and has been awarded green certifications, like Rainforest Alliance or Fair Trade. This website lists examples of eco labels you might find so you can determine the validity of the certification. Sometimes companies make up their own “green” certifications, which are not real.

 Find the Whole Truth

Sometimes companies will focus their advertising on the one green aspect of a product while the product may not be sustainable overall. Recently, there has been an increase in clothing made from bamboo, claiming bamboo is a more sustainable material. While bamboo production is more sustainable, the process of making bamboo into clothing is not. It is much more sustainable to buy used clothing. Another example is when a company advertises work they are doing to protect the environment to draw attention away from the fact that their products are negatively affecting the environment. Dawn shows how their soap is used to clean and save wildlife after an oil spill but their soap contains chemicals, like triclosan that are harmful to wildlife.

Be Aware of Parent Companies

In some cases a larger parent company that typically does not have a good environmental track record, will create a smaller company to sell “green” products. For example, Honest Tea at first glance appears to be sustainable, organic, family owned, and produced in glass containers. The company however, is owned by Coca Cola, which is one of the top plastic polluting companies in the world.

It can be hard to determine if a product is greenwashed. This is not a comprehensive list to definitively decide whether a product is truly sustainable. It might not always be possible to know exactly how sustainable every product is. We can only try our best to be aware of greenwashing and make decisions with the knowledge we have. The best thing to keep an eye out for are those third party certifications of sustainable practice. In the end it requires research and keeping the above tips in mind. If you want to learn more about greenwashing I recommend this video by CBC.