There has never been a better time to go eco-friendly.
Many studies show that more and more people are growing more environmentally conscious:
- A poll conducted by SurveyMonkey showed 1 out of 3 respondents would choose environmentally friendly products over their less ‘green’ counterparts, even if it means paying more.
- In 2019, an Accenture survey found that, aside from price and quality, consumers also factor in whether a product can be reused or recycled when making purchasing decisions.
- Crowdsourcing company Toluna reported that 45% of consumers between 18 and 34 believe it is extremely important to buy environmentally friendly products. Likewise, respondents are more likely to make green choices when buying, especially when it comes to cleaning products, drinks, and pre-packaged food.
With these, it’s no surprise that a growing number of companies are also coming out with products and services labelled ‘green,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘organic,’ or ‘all-natural.’
But the question is, are these brands genuinely invested in being environmentally responsible, or are they merely riding the ‘eco-friendly’ wave to rake in more profits?
More importantly, how do we, as consumers, tell the difference? Read on to find out the many ways companies could be hiding their sins behind the green sheen.
What is ‘Greenwashing’?
Greenwashing was coined in the late eighties by environmental activist Jay Westervald. On a surfing trip in Fiji, Westervald couldn’t help but point out the hypocrisy of a local beach resort’s ‘reuse a towel, save the reefs’ gimmick. (He claimed the resort at the time was building bungalows that extended out into the sea, which was destroying the coral reefs it was purporting to protect.)
Recalling that incident in an essay he wrote years later, he referred to the hotel’s two-faced call as ‘greenwash.’
The term has since then become a popular word to refer to the way companies (usually large ones) mislead consumers into believing that they are ‘environmentally responsible’ in various ways:
- coming up with an ‘eco-friendly’ service or product to make a profit off environmentally conscious consumers
- claiming to be ecologically responsible all the while practising environmentally damaging or unsustainable acts
- spending millions on PR campaigns and advertising to brand themselves as a ‘green company’ (to divert the public’s attention from its less environmentally friendly practices).
Read: Sustainable Fashion, Explained: What is It and Why Does It Matter
Four Tell-Tale Signs a Brand is Guilty of Greenwashing
How do you tell apart companies that are genuinely sustainable from those that are only masquerading as one? Here are some clues:
1.They make vague, unsubstantiated claims.
How many brands have you come across claiming their products are created with ‘all-natural ingredients,’ are ‘free from chemicals,’ or have ‘50% more recycled material’–or something along those lines?
If you take a closer look, these statements actually raise more questions than answers.
Sadly, some companies capitalise on the confusion to mislead the buying public into choosing their products.
‘We care for the planet!’ or ‘Our products are made of recycled or sustainable materials’ may look good on the label, but without quantifiable proof of the steps these companies are taking to ensure they’re operating and producing sustainably, these are all but smokes and mirrors.
2. They give dodgy product information.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure that if you’re really as environmentally friendly as you claim to be, you would only be too happy to tell the whole world.
More importantly, you should be able to lay down the specifics of what makes your products sustainable.
However, greenwashing brands leave a lot to be desired when it comes to being transparent about how they make their products (and who makes them).
Their website, for instance, may be filled with feel-good nature-y visuals but have little content to back it up.
3. They’re not certified.
Any company can claim that their products are ‘eco-friendly,’ ‘all-natural,’ or ‘organic.’ However, without a third-party group to verify the validity of those claims, you’re better off taking those statements with a grain of salt.
Also, watch out for companies that place phoney ‘eco’ labels or certificates on the packaging to give the impression that their products have received a third-party endorsement.
4. They try a little too hard to ‘blend in.’
This is especially true of big companies that have a solid reputation for being environmental offenders. Their version of greenwashing usually takes on the form of coming out with an eco-friendly version of their product. This obviously begs the question, ‘Why can’t you do the same for all your products?’
Or take the way oil companies invest heavily in promoting their sustainable initiatives by running expensive multimillion marketing campaigns. If they are genuinely committed to being sustainable, they’re better off using that amount on actual projects.
Read: Fast Fashion: The Good, the Bad, and the Solution
What Can You Do?
Here are a couple of ways you can avoid falling victim to greenwashing:
- Educate yourself. Don’t easily buy into clever marketing gimmicks like ‘greenified’ packaging or ads. Do a quick company background check (CorpWatch.org is a great resource), ask for recommendations from experts, and scrutinize the ingredients list before you buy a product.
- Check the label. There are environmental certifications for almost every product on the market. There’s GreenGuard, Oeko-Tex, and GOTS for clothing and apparel, USDA Organic for organic food and agricultural products, and Energy Star for energy-efficient buildings and appliances. Ecolabel Index has a useful worldwide directory of legit ecolabels you can use to check.
- Buy from small players. While it isn’t a foolproof way of steering clear of greenwashed products, large multinational companies are most of the time the ones guilty of greenwashing their products. So it makes sense to throw your support behind small independent businesses.
Recognising greenwashing is often difficult. Some companies may even try to defend it by saying doing something is better than not doing anything at all.
But it doesn’t have to be the norm. As consumers, we have the power of choice, and we can use this to demand accountability and better action from big companies.
Read: The Slow Fashion Movement: What It Is, and Why We Should All Get Behind It
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