Updated March 15, 2021. From ads magically curated to our wants and desires to product labeling on everything from t-shirts to food, marketing is everywhere. As interest in sustainability continues to rise, the need to be aware of a marketing concept called “greenwashing” is becoming more important than ever. Being a conscious consumer is hard work. And if the constant self-education about the environmental impact of our choices wasn’t enough work, there are companies looking to cash-in on our collective goodwill.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when a company gives a false impression that a product is better for the planet than it actually is. It is an attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally sustainable products, whether that means they are more natural, healthier, free from chemicals, recyclable, or less wasteful of natural resources.
“Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on,” Leyla Acaroglu, an Australian sustainability designer and the 2016 United Nations Environment Programme Champion of the Earth, wrote on Medium.
How common is it? A recent investigation by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network (ICPEN) found that 40 percent of websites could be using greenwashing. The ICPEN analyzed nearly 500 websites across food, clothing, and cosmetics.
“The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution, and global species extinctions,” she continues. “The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident, as they don’t have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what is not.”
Greenwashing shows up in a brand’s advertising campaign or marketing copy. They might use buzzwords like “eco-friendly” or “green,” so consumers are misdirected into making what they think is the more sustainable choice. For example, the meat and dairy industry often uses labels such as “sustainable,” “ethical,” and “free-range,” to communicate a sense of kindness and responsibility.
However, no matter how meat and dairy products are produced—whether factory-farmed or “grass-fed”—the negative environmental impact is undeniable. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Greenwashing can also look like a label stating that packaging is “made with recycled materials” or that a snack is made with “sustainably sourced ingredients.” A company might also claim that it incorporates “sustainable” business practices without providing information on how it’s reducing its environmental impact. Greenwashing can apply to all products, from household and beauty to fashion and food.
The Federal Trade Commission has attempted to curb false eco-friendly claims with its Green Guides. But, state governments control laws related to packaging. For example, California bans labeling plastic as “biodegradable” and “compostable” because these claims are not often backed by substantiated evidence about how they’re better for the environment.
How to Spot Greenwashing
So, what does greenwashing look like? Marketing firm TerraChoice outlined the six “sins” of greenwashing in 2007 and uncovered how common it is. Of the 1,018 products bearing environmental claims it reviewed for the report, only one committed none of the “sins.”
Here’s what to look out for when you go shopping:
Trading Off Benefits
A common greenwashing practice is trading off benefits. This can look like companies claiming to use recycled materials in their packaging without addressing what the company itself is doing to reduce its impact. Even industries that are already better for the planet than the alternative, like vegan food and fashion, can take steps toward being more environmentally friendly.
This can include moving toward a closed-loop system, where businesses reuse materials in order to create new products. Some companies, like Tofurky, are converting to solar energy or other renewable sources. Many brands will put this information on their website. A Certified B Corporation logo is also a good sign. Certified B Corporations “are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose,” according to the website.
Unsubstantiated Environmental Claims
One of the most egregious greenwashing practices is promoting unverified claims about sustainability. This can include claims such as “made from recycled materials.” Or, that the company is sourcing the most eco-friendly ingredients possible without proof of where they come from.
This can also apply to “energy-efficient” light bulbs that don’t have the Energy Star certification. Look for companies that are transparent about their claims. Many sustainable brands will have detailed sections on the website explaining their sourcing practices.
This can cross over into animal welfare, too. A company might claim its product is “not tested on animals” without any sort of certification, like Cruelty Free International’s Leaping Bunny logo.
Irrelevant Call-Outs on Packaging
Most greenwashing takes place right on the packaging. This is when companies make claims for the sake of looking better than other options. A good example is chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), a chemical that contributes to ozone depletion that has been banned for 30 years. Because it’s CFC is already illegal, companies that put “CFC-free” on the packaging are making an irrelevant claim.
This is the most common in disinfectants, insecticides, and lubricants. An example of this happening in food would be putting “cholesterol-free” on peanut butter. Plant-based foods are free from and help lower cholesterol. While it’s true that peanut butter is cholesterol-free, it’s not unique.
Vague Language and Wording
Like all manipulative marketing, greenwashing is vague by design. Oftentimes, a company will use poorly defined claims. For example, the packaging might state claims such as “non-toxic” or “all-natural.” But, many harmful things, like arsenic, are natural. Another example of this is a company calling out the use of “plant-based” ingredients on the packaging. This is frequently paired with green, representing its supposed eco-friendliness.
In 2015, Kimberly Clark, parent company to diaper brand Huggies, was sued for using misleading claims on its “Pure & Natural” range. The diapers featured green-colored packaging and called out the use of organic cotton. However, this was only present on the outside of diapers.
According to the lawsuit, the product was not “pure and natural,” as it contained potentially harmful ingredients including polypropylene and sodium polyacrylate. Additionally, the packaging contained only 20 percent post-consumer materials.
This carries over to the grocery store aisles. Meat producer Tyson has a “Naturals” range that features a logo with a green leaf, symbolizing the product’s supposed natural origins. The packaging suggests that the fact that antibiotic-free hens are “natural.”
The chickens of today are unrecognizable from the birds from 60 years ago due to being bred to grow faster. Broiler hens used to weigh just under two pounds. Now, the average hen weighs about nine pounds. As a result, chickens of today are often in constant pain, according to a study from the University of Guelph.
The packaging of the Naturals range also claims that the product contains “no added hormones or steroids.**”
But, in the left corner, it clearly states: “**Federal regulations prohibit the use of added hormones or steroids in chickens,” bringing us back to point number three: irrelevant call-outs.
The phrases “chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” “green,” “eco-friendly,” and “eco-conscious” are other examples of vagueness. Technically speaking, everything is made from chemicals and everything is toxic with the right dosage. Check the packaging and website for the appropriate certifications attached to these claims.
The Lesser of Two Evils
The ultimate greenwashing practice: promoting an inherently harmful product as a “better” alternative. These are eco-friendly claims on products that are environmentally destructive, like organic tobacco or green pesticides. Rayon viscose, a fabric made from plant cellulose (usually bamboo), is another example.
You might think it’s sustainable because plants are a renewable resource and therefore, it’s better for the planet than cotton. But, harmful chemicals like sodium hydroxide, carbon disulfide, and sulphuric acid are used to process it. These are often dumped into local waterways, which is harmful to the local communities. Working with these chemicals is also hazardous to employees. Rayon isn’t made in the U.S. because the chemicals involved are too toxic to comply with EPA standards.
This is when a company makes claims that are outright false. This could mean claiming to be energy efficient when evidence suggests otherwise or misuse of labels like “organic”. According to TerraChoice’s Six Sins of Marketing, this claim can be the trickiest to identify. The most frequent example is the misuse of third-party certifications, such as the Forest Stewardship Council or Green Guard. Verifying this is easy; legitimate third-party certifiers will maintain a list of products that have received the seal of approval.
What’s the Harm?
Greenwashing can be dangerous because it tricks well-meaning consumers into making purchases that they believe are better for the environment.
“Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of marketing and PR efforts,” writes Acaroglu.
“But the common denominator among all greenwashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s also really not helping to further sustainable design or circular economy initiatives,” Acaroglu continues. “Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.”
So, how can you be a savvy, eco-conscious consumer?
How to Identify Greenwashing
Before you buy, read the company website and pay careful attention to the language used. A company’s information (or lack thereof) of how they operate behind the scenes can be revealing. Keep these questions in mind while you read to look out for greenwashing practices.
When the company says that it uses sustainably sourced ingredients, is that backed by any official certification? Is it transparent about their practices for managing excess materials and waste? Is it recycling or using post-consumer materials for packaging? What are its plans for becoming more environmentally friendly? Is it moving toward a closed-loop system or converting to renewable energy? Can it provide evidence that it has taken action on any of its plans?
Until labeling laws are stricter on claims like “green,” “eco-friendly,” or “sustainable,” it’s important for us to remain skeptical and do our research on the company before making a purchase.