How to Spot Greenwashing?
As consumers demand ethical products and practices from companies, we are beginning to see an increase of sustainability focus as a major tenet of business operations, environmentalism, ethical production and sustainable management in recent years. However, companies have also realised that they can bypass actually being sustainable to attract customers and make money.
What is greenwashing?
The term ‘greenwashing’ which was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld  as an organisation who actively attempts to promote its environmental efforts when it is in reality, engaging in environmentally harmful practices. These companies attempt to depict themselves as more eco-friendly than they actually are . In recent years, the idea of greenwashing has not been limited to environmental practices; corporations want to promote the idea that they implement ethical practices throughout their company and supply chains, including sourcing materials ethically and treating workers fairly throughout their supply chain.
These are some greenwashing tactics that you can watch out for when purchasing products from or engaging with a company:
Fake awards and certifications:
Some companies try to come up with their own in-house ‘eco’ certifications and standards that are not internationally verified or recognised, and stamp these fake certifications on all their product labels to trick customers to thinking they’ve been deemed sustainable by unbiased third-party experts.
This term entails an unregulated definition that is being used by many companies to look sustainable. In many cases, companies claim that their products are ‘carbon neutral’ as they let customers offset carbon emissions associated with shipping the item, which is quite manipulative and deceiving.
Technical and complex jargon like bio-sustainable, compostable, biodegradable, biobased polymers, fossil fuel free – are some phrases used while marketing products by many companies. These scientific terms do not mean much and are used inaccurately as they are hard for the average customer to understand and check.
Irrelevant distracting claims:
Some companies tend to focus one aspect of a product that is environmentally conscious and ignore the rest of the product and processes which are quite harmful for the environment. For example, companies might claim their appliances are energy-efficient when in fact, they are manufactured in polluting factories from toxic chemicals, plastic and so on.
‘Made with 100% recycled plastic’ or ‘made with 100% organic cotton’:
A company may manufacture products using cotton that is 100% organic, but what about the other materials? Is all the plastic in a product recycled, or is just some of the plastic that is 100% recycled? It always helps to check the full materials list of a product before purchasing it.
Thankfully, some regulatory bodies and governments are identifying greenwashing and taking action. For instance, in 2019, Norway’s Consumer Authority began investigating fashion brand H&M for its claims regarding a ‘Conscious’ collection. H&M’s marketing made it seem as though this collection was more eco-friendly and sustainable than the rest of their products, but there was little specificity about materials and processes, making it hard to truly assess sustainability.
What other greenwashing behaviours have you witnessed? Share with us in the comments below.
- Watson, Bruce 2016. The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing, The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies
- Becker-Olsen, Karen and Potucek, Sean, 2013. ‘Greenwashing,’ Encyclopedia of Corporate Social Responsibility. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-642-28036-8_104
This article is written by Pooja Devaraj and edited by Michele Wong.