What is Greenwashing?

Being conscious about your carbon footprint and the activities you’re doing to live a more eco-friendly life are steps in the right direction. This is true for both business owners and consumers.  However, many companies, brands, and the media have started using green-living buzzwords to exaggerate reality, blurring the lines between what’s eco-friendly and what’s not. This is what is referred to as greenwashing — the practice of amplifying marketing messaging to appear more sustainable than one really is.

On the plus side, greenwashing has emerged as a result of greater consumer demand for eco-friendly products. Companies want to appear sustainable because sustainability is trendy and consumers care more about what they buy than they used to.

However, nobody really benefits from greenwashing, because nobody benefits from pollution or environmental degradation.

Both consumers and business owners can benefit from gaining an increased awareness about misleading greenwashing campaigns, how to identify and avoid them.

What is Greenwashing?

The technical definition of greenwashing is the collection of behaviors conducted by a company that wants consumers to think they’re doing more good for the environment than they really are. Greenwashing can take many forms, from faux sustainability efforts to using eco-friendly jargon in their marketing.

This can be as subtle as putting plants on packaging to imply a connection to nature, or as complex as labeling an entire product line as “sustainable” when all the company did was reduce their water use by 1%. Even telling a story about how a new, smaller water bottle cap uses less plastic so it’s better for the planet when in reality the company just wants to save money by using less plastic and the decision had nothing to do with the planet.

The goal of greenwashing is to make people feel like they’re doing good in the world and to make companies look good.

Greenwashing isn’t just confusing, it can be dangerous both to the individual and to the environment as a whole. In the fashion world, it has even resulted in consumers buying more clothing than they normally would, because they feel good about buying “eco-friendly” items.

A Terminology Problem

Greenwashing can partly be attributed to a lack of proper terminology available for labeling products and practices. Marketing terminology ranges from the vague, (“conscious,”) to the seemingly scientific, (“biodegradable,”) with many companies choosing to simply label themselves as “eco-friendly” and “sustainable”. But what does it really mean for a product or a company to be “eco-friendly”?

I am guilty of this myself. I use the terms ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ often in my posts, for a few reasons. One is so that those of you who are interested in living more sustainably and buying better products can find me when you’re searching online and browsing social media.

The other is that there aren’t a lot of good word options out there to describe something that is better for the environment than something else, but still isn’t ‘perfect’ in that it has absolutely zero impact or even a positive impact.

I like the fact that words like ‘conscious’ and ‘mindful’ aren’t claiming that a product is sustainable when it really isn’t, but I tend to avoid using them because they are pretty much meaningless.

The language of sustainability is always changing, and there are some newer terms being used like ‘net positive’ and ‘regenerative,’ but some of these are industry terms that consumers aren’t as familiar with.

“Zero waste” is a great term that is specific and easy to understand. While I certainly believe in zero waste products and lifestyles, I don’t always find them to be realistic. Not everyone has access or budgets to buy from specialty stores, and many people, myself included, don’t have time to make DIY beauty and skin products or to think about their trash every day. That being said, there are a lot of simple swaps you can make to reduce or eliminate waste from your life.

If you’re interested in learning more about zero waste living, I highly recommend checking out Kathryn Kellogg’s blog, Going Zero Waste.

Another issue is that some terms aren’t specific enough or the reality of how a product will be used doesn’t match the language. For example, some products are compostable or biodegradable if they are disposed of in particular ways under specific conditions. However, if they don’t have the correct exposure to air, sunlight, heat, or other elements, it could take them decades or even longer to decompose.

My Commitment to You

One of the reasons I started this blog was to educate myself about the best products and practices out there, and to share them with others. I found that when I read blogs and media sites promoting “sustainable” products and practices, many of them were promoting companies that are using greenwashing and aren’t truly creating great products.

There is a lot of “lazy design” out there.

There are also numerous products on the market today that are being promoted as eco-friendly because they are better than previous products were. For instance, clothing and accessories made from plastic removed from the ocean. Of course, I’m all for removing plastic from the ocean, but I personally don’t believe that turning it into a bracelet that someone will wear five times and then toss out is the best use of that material or the best solution to the problem.

I take pride in the amount of research that goes into finding the best brands and products, and I stand behind every product that I recommend. The way I see it, when you buy something, you’re voting for the world that product creates.

If you buy (or design) a product that will end up in the ocean, you’re voting for a trash-filled ocean.

At the same time, most people are too busy to research every single product before they buy, and other factors go into purchasing decisions, such as price and aesthetics. My first job out of college was doing marketing for an author who wrote about “green guilt”. Her message was that every little step you take to live more sustainably makes a difference, and to not feel overwhelmed or guilty about the fact that you can’t change your entire lifestyle.

Not every product or brand I recommend is “perfect,” as there is always room for improvement and a lot of sustainable design concepts are fairly new. But some designers and brands really are making an effort to make good products.

In truth, a lot of companies that commit greenwashing have mostly good intentions. But some companies engage in greenwashing purely as a marketing ploy. They know that environmental friendliness is becoming a higher priority to consumers, and they want to capitalize on this segment of the market in any way they can. To do this, they shift their messaging toward using eco-focused verbiage and promises without following through with commitments on their back end.

Here’s how you can identify and differentiate greenwashing from authentic sustainability.

The Most Common Greenwashing Buzzwords To Look Out For

Consumers who want to make a difference in the world by buying more eco-friendly products tend to trust what’s on a label. They look for industry-specific verbiage that can indicate a product’s impact on the environment.

However, many terms that were once used by authentic eco-friendly brands have nearly lost their meaning. These terms can be taken to mean different things, and are not heavily regulated when added to packaging or marketing materials. The most common examples I can think of are:

  • Conscious
  • Ethical
  • Mindful
  • Green
  • Pure
  • Natural
  • Sustainable
  • Eco-Friendly
  • Earth-friendly

These terms are vague, at best. They can be twisted to mean different things to different people, but they do present a nice, pretty image of the company using them, don’t they?

Another phrase companies use that I personally can’t stand is “saving the Earth” or “saving the planet.” Not only is it self righteous, I think it’s strange to paint a picture of heroic humans when the goal is to “save the Earth” from harmful human practices.

How to Identify Greenwashing (and Avoid Companies that are Guilty of It)

I believe that the best remedy to greenwashing is knowledge. I encourage you to look beyond the marketing that’s on the product packaging, no matter how many images of plants they use, and dive deeper into the ingredients that make up the product, how it was made and who made it.

Recently I saw a product that was labeled as “post-petroleum” but it was made from recycled plastic! Recycled plastic may be better than virgin plastic, (in some respects,) but it’s still made from petroleum. Do they think “post” is a new term for “recycled,” because that’s not what it means to me. I felt insulted.

I can tell you that nine times out of 10, products labeled as eco-friendly or green that are in mass merchandise stores or large chains are probably just labeled so for the marketing. That’s not always the case, and some brands really can be trusted.

Here are a few steps you can take to identify greenwashing and make better purchasing decisions:

1. Don’t be fooled by packaging

2. Read ingredient and material labels: Some companies say things like their product is made from organic cotton, when in reality only 10% of the product is made from organic cotton.

3. Look for proof: Is the product certified organic? Is it certified by Cradle to Cradle? There are numerous seals and certifications brands can apply for to prove the sustainability of their products. You can also look at a company’s website and read their sustainability statements or research more about their practices.

4. Don’t trust slogans and branding

5. Educate yourself about what it means to be green. Learn more about materials and manufacturing.

6. Look for products that create a circular economy. In an ideal world, any material that is used in a product can be reused or returned to the Earth. Any water used during manufacturing can be recycled and used again. To learn more about the circular economy, visit the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

In general, do your research. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

What Companies Can do Better: Transparency, Storytelling, and Better Design

If a company has created a new product or made efforts to improve their practices, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to inform consumers and market their business. However, green marketing doesn’t have to mean greenwashing. One great way that companies can promote their products is by telling stories about sustainability. Tell the story of where a material came from and how a product was made. Make supply chains more transparent and create opportunities for customers to get to know the people and processes behind the brand.

I work with designers and brands to develop more sustainable products and to market them to consumers. If you have an idea for a product, are looking to improve your company’s practices, or are interested in running a green marketing campaign without the greenwashing, I’d love to hear from you. 

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