What is Greenwashing?
The term "Greenwashing" has been around for quite some time, but it's become more prevalent in recent years, as more companies try to capitalize on the growing demand for eco-friendly products.
The important distinction here is Greenwashing vs. Green Marketing in general. Many companies that legitimately care about the environment advertise the eco-friendliness of their products to appeal to their target group. As long as these claims are not exaggerated or false, there is nothing wrong with advertising products. Companies that practice Greenwashing on the other hand exaggerate or misrepresent efforts to be more sustainable to appeal to an eco-conscious audience, without doing the legwork of changing their products or services for the better.
A 2022 poll with 1491 global executives found that 58% of leaders globally and 68% of US leaders admitted to having overstated their companies’ sustainability or greenwashed at times. With our planet desperately needing true action for more sustainability, Greenwashing is a real problem.
Why is Greenwashing a Problem?
Greenwashing is a problem for multiple reasons. By using misleading or false environmental claims, more and more businesses are fooling consumers into making seemingly sustainable purchase decisions. Consumer who are genuinely interested in making a positive impact end up buying products that harm the environment.
Additionally, positive environmental change requires a lot of effort. Greenwashing can mask this by creating a sense of complacency among consumers. By marketing products as environmentally friendly, consumers could be encouraged to ignore the true change that is needed to make a true impact and simply count on the environmental claims of seemingly sustainable products.
Finally, Greenwashing can undermine legitimate environmental efforts by companies that try to change for the better. By eroding trust in environmental claims, it is more difficult for consumers to distinguish between genuinely environmentally responsible products and those that are merely Greenwashing.
This does not only make it harder for companies that are genuinely committed to sustainability to stand out and gain recognition for their efforts. Positive environmental change also requires businesses' investment and if Greenwashing dilutes the market for eco-conscious products, the legitimate companies are financially disadvantaged.
Greenwashing Can Take Many Forms
Greenwashing can take many forms, from using vague or meaningless terms like "natural" or "eco-friendly" to even making bold and untrue statements about saving the planet. Here are the most common tactics you'll find.
1. Empty And Irrelevant Claims
A popular tactic is advocating for positive change, without giving any prove about a the actual sustainability of a product or service. You will often see companies using vague language like "sustainable" or "good for the environment", without clear indication why that is the case.
Knowing that Innocent is owned by Coca Cola, many times crowned the world’s worst plastic polluter, and knowing that Innocent produces 32,000 plastic bottles per hour, lets you think twice about the validity of these claims. Luckily, The Plastics Rebellion campaigned against the advertisement and a few weeks after airing it got banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for making misleading statements.
Another example of empty or irrelevant claims is if companies use official regulations to shine a sustainable light on them. With every official ban or regulation, you will find companies acting like it was their idea. For instance Starbucks announcing its plans to ban plastic straws amidst regulations that force them to do so, does not really mean that the company cares about the environment. It only means they have to adhere to global regulations to avoid financial penalties.
You will even find producers that still advertise their product as CFC-free. CFCs are ozone-harming chemicals that were banned from nearly all consumer products in the 1980s. The "No CFCs" label still can be found on many products. It is a label that is sponsored by 3M and a labeled product can still contain many chemicals that harm the ozone layer.
2. Fake Green Packaging And Labels
Another common tactic is to use fake eco-friendly packaging to create the impression of sustainability, without actually making any significant changes to the product or production process.
This is often paired with labels or certifications that are targeted to lure you into buying a supposedly eco-friendly product.
One of the most common examples of this tactic is using recycling symbols. If you thought the symbols below indicate a package is recyclable, you've been greenwashed! The "green dot" on the left only indicates that a company is investing in recycling efforts by paying a license fee to the Green Dot Trademark, which is in no way related to the actual packaging that shows the symbol. While it is great to invest in the enhancement of recycling efforts, the symbol has a great chance of misleading consumers.
The famous symbol with the chasing arrows only indicates the type of plastic and does not necessarily mean something is recyclable. In fact the code that shows a 6 stands for Polystyrene, which is hardly ever recycled.
Another example of green packaging is if businesses quite literally use the color green to signal sustainability. If you see a product in lush green packaging, be wary! You might be misled by a clever marketer.
Diversion is a Greenwashing tactic where a company focuses on a small aspect of their product or service that is environmentally friendly while ignoring the larger environmental impact of their operations. This tactic is often used by companies to divert attention away from the negative environmental impact of their overall operations.
For example, a skincare company may promote the use of "natural ingredients" in their products while ignoring the larger environmental impact of their operations or their plastic packaging. This is a form of diversion, where the company focuses on a small aspect of their product that is environmentally friendly while ignoring the larger picture.
While using environmentally friendly materials or practices in one aspect of a company's operations is certainly a positive step, it is important to consider the larger picture. A company that uses diversion tactics may be trying to distract consumers from the negative environmental impact of their overall operations.
We find that sponsorship deserves its own category for Greenwashing, as it is one of the most influential ones.
Sponsoring events can be a form of Greenwashing if a company uses the sponsorship to promote themselves as environmentally responsible while ignoring their own negative environmental impact. This is particularly problematic when big polluters sponsor events related to environmental issues, such as the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change.
Some of the world's worst polluters like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and big oil companies, have been criticized for sponsoring COP events. While the companies may be supporting the event financially, their sponsorship can be seen as an attempt to distract attention from their own negative environmental impact, including the production and disposal of single-use plastic bottles.
Sponsoring events like COP can also create conflicts of interest. For example at COP27, which was largely criticized for sponsorship by Coca Cola. The representatives participated in talks and workshops, despite the fact that the company has been contributing to deforestation and land-use change, and is the undisputed winner of the "world's worst plastic polluter" award for the fifth consecutive year. The big oil companies on the other hand could be seen lobbying during the event and one can only assume that they were trying to influence the regulations that are so crucial to saving our environment.
Sponsoring events like COP in general can be seen as a way for companies to influence policy discussions and shape the narrative around environmental issues in their favor. This can result in shifting the focus on individual consumer choices, such as recycling, rather than the systemic change that is needed to address the root causes of environmental problems.
Sustainability Requires Commitment
So, how can you avoid falling for Greenwashing? As consumers, we need to be aware of the tactics that are used around us, to avoid falling for illegitimate claims. By educating yourself, you are already taking a first step to avoid Greenwashing.
Luckily, there are a number third-party certifications or labels that indicate a product has met legititmate environmental standards. As an example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification indicates that wood products come from responsibly managed forests and avoid deforestation.
Personal research of product reviews or articles about a company's sustainability practices can be another helpful method. By, researching the company's overall environmental impact and its public image, you can already determine how sustainable claims fit into the broader picture. Try to consider companies that have a comprehensive sustainability strategy in place before those that suddenly claim a green niche for themselves without a history about caring for the environment. Often you only have to go as far as reading the product reviews to get a first impression of the legitimacy of a product.
It's also important to be skeptical of any product that seems too good to be true. If you read claims like "100% natural" it might be worth to dig deeper to see if you find proper proof for those statements. In general, it's a good idea to be wary of companies that act like they're saving the world without providing any real details or data to back it up.
Greenwashing is a true problem and it is crucial that consumers are aware of the issue. By spotting the signs and making conscious purchasing decisions, you can avoid being fooled by misleading marketing tactics. Remember, true sustainability goes beyond just using green packaging or buzzwords. It requires a genuine commitment to reducing our impact on the environment by both consumers and businesses.
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