Greenwashing is a manipulative tactic used by companies that want to appear eco-friendly without actually making an effort to change their practices and make the world a better place.
Similar to rainbow-washing, greenwashing is a marketing strategy used by companies as a ploy to win over eco-conscious shoppers. As people become more educated on the effects of their consumption, many are making a move to quit partaking in fast fashion and other wasteful industries, and instead opt for more sustainable products. Some companies have used this to their advantage and made an effort to support sustainability so that they increase their sales.
While this may sound like a good thing, it doesn’t always translate to an actual difference being made. Instead of truly making a change and working to reduce waste and CO2 emissions, many companies simply put up a symbolic, green facade. This misleading marketing is referred to as greenwashing. Greenwashing is extremely unfortunate because it often leads to well-meaning people purchasing from unethical and unsustainable brands, when they’re actually trying to do the exact opposite. Greenwashing comes in many forms, and it can be really convincing.
Greenwashing: The Scientific Concept
A study published in the Environmental Sciences Europe journal, investigating the definition, forms and evolution of Greenwashing, found two main types: claim greenwashing and executional greenwashing. Both forms can happen on two levels, the firm-level and the product- or service-level.
Claim greenwashing happens when advertising makes false claims, omits relevant information or is intentionally unclear. The greenwashed claims can focus on different aspects, like the product itself, its processes of production, or a combination of those and other aspects. Environmental marketing firm TerraChoice has classified seven often-cited ‘sins’ of greenwashing, all product-level greenwashing claims:
- Hidden trade-off: when a product is ‘green’, only based on certain attributes but not others
- No proof
- Worhsipping false label: when label-like icons or images are used on the product
- ‘Lesser of two evils’: a fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicle is better than an inefficent one, for example
- Fibbing (outright lying)
Another study has used research on the oil and gas industry to elaborate six more green marking ‘sins’.
On the firm-level, five types have been identified:
- Dirty busines: when an unsustainable business promotes its one green product
- Ad bluster: exaggerating green achievements to divert attention from real sustainability issues
- Political spin: the effort to change regulations in order to benefit the company’s sustainability status
- It is the law, stupid!: promising or boasting with green achievements that are or will soon be required by law anyway
- Fuzzy reporting: using sustainability reports as an incontestable, one-way communication channel to slant the public image of a company’s sustainability efforts.
The concept of execuational greenwashing is fairly new and was first described in 2015: a company, instead of making verbal claims about the sustainabilty of their production or services, uses “nature-evoking” imagery. Whether intentional or not, the reader associates such pictures of endangered species, clear water creeks, and so on with ecological practices and is thereby deceived by the company’s marketing.
Greenwashing: Examples of Common Strategies
To make it easier for you to recognize whether a company is trying to trick you into thinking it’s eco-conscious, here are some common examples of what the different forms of greenwashing might look like:
- Showy Statements: greenwashing is often accompanied by grandiose promises and declarations of appreciation for and dedication to the environment. You may see something along these lines on social media, in a press release or in an ad campaign. While this may not be problematic on its own, if these statements are not backed up by actual efforts, it’s simply misleading consumers.
- Vague Slogans: a tell-tale sign of greenwashing is the use of vague promises. When companies advertise their products as “green,” “eco-conscious,” “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “ethically made,” or anything along these lines, it’s important to remember that these statements are not regulated in any way. Companies can advertise their goods as seemingly sustainable even if they have no evidence of any action. There are rarely legal ramifications for doing this, so companies continue to be intentionally vague in order to make money. If they don’t explain what exactly makes their product sustainable, it’s probably not.
- Ambiguous Plans: plans for the future regarding cutting emissions and reducing waste are great, but there needs to be follow-through. When companies promise to do better but provide no clear targets or updates on their goals, it’s greenwashing. Watch out for phrases like “want to improve,” “aim to do better” and other vague promises with no explanations.
- Dirty business: one form of greenwashing occurs when companies make an effort to produce a truly sustainable line or specific product. The brand will put lots of money and effort into the campaign to make a product-level claim, in order to win over eco-friendly consumers. However, the brand does not change anything else about the rest of their products. They put their sustainable products at the forefront of their marketing to create the facade that the entire brand is sustainability-focused.
These Companies Do Greenwashing
This might not come to you as a surprise, but often the world leaders in an industry aren’t the most eco-friendly of companies. At the same time, they have enormous budgets to spend on ‘green’ marketing. The result is greenwashing. Some examples:
- Nestlé has been accused of greenwashing for their 2018 statement sharing their goal to use 100 percent recyclable or reusable plastic by 2025. Unfortunately, Nestlé’s “ambition” did not contain any details on their efforts to reduce and eventually completely eliminate single-use plastics. In 2020, Nestlé remained one of the top global plastic polluters.
- Coco-Cola produces more than double Nestlé’s plastic waste, but they have put loads of time and money into advertising themselves as an ethical, sustainable brand. In social media, on tv and in printed advertisement, Coco-Cola has claimed to be working toward “sustainable solutions” and reducing its carbon emissions, but remains a top corporate plastic polluter. The Earth Island Institute is suing Coco-Cola for greenwashing in their “World Without Waste” campaign.
- H&M has a “conscious collection”, which is a classic example of greenwashing. This fast fashion company has exploited the lack of regulation in green terminology to make certain products seem like ethical purchases. If you take a closer look, however, there is no explanation of how or why the conscious collection items are allegedly more sustainable than the rest of the store, rendering the entire collection relatively meaningless. This is a ploy to mislead consumers.
Avoid Greenwashing: Make the Right Choice
The key to avoiding greenwashing is to pay attention when shopping. When making an effort to purchase from sustainable, ethical companies, don’t stop at the first sight of commitment to the environment. Look at the tag or check the website and check for detailed information regarding ingredients, materials, packaging, emissions, targets, policies, donations, goals and success stories, and anything else which may be relevant. Don’t fall for ambiguous, empty promises.
Better yet, do your research beforehand and find some truly sustainable, ethical companies which you can feel good shopping from. There are loads of socially conscious brands out there. You just have to find them. Check out these sustainable jewelry brands and some of our favorite affordable, sustainable clothing and gender-neutral clothing.
You can also keep an eye out for labels such as the EPA’s various Ecolabel certifications. They include labels that rate energy efficiency, like the Energy Star, or transportations related emissions, like the SmartWay® label. Keep in mind that most labels zero in on a very specific aspect of sustainability. A product might be very water-efficient, but entail long transportation routes. Read into the relevant labels and certifications before making a purchase to be on the safe side. There are even some websites and apps available which provide brand ratings and explanations of their sustainability policies. Search for clothing company ratings using Good on You and the Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index. Vote with your dollar!
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