What is Greenwashing? Are the Companies You’re Buying From Tricking You?

Nowadays, we support companies that follow green practices in the manufacture and distribution of their products and avoid buying products from companies that harm our environment and our health in any way, shape or form.

In response to that, companies seek to communicate strategically and effectively to buyers their values and their responsibility to the environment, trying to make it crystal clear how much they care about the world they live in. Also, it’s no secret that the demand for eco-friendly products continues to grow and in the business world, green credentials are key for companies to be competitive and stand out from their rivals.

And while there are honest companies that are truly eco-friendly, there are others that have played dirty with their sales strategies in an attempt to get ahead of the market. This is known as “greenwashing”.

In this post we’ll try to shed some light on this shady practice, explaining its origins, how to tell if a company is greenwashing, what companies are guilty of greenwashing and more. But before we dig deeper into this topic, first things first. What does greenwashing mean?

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is basically a deceptive form of marketing in which a company claims to be environmentally committed, either in the company’s own operations, in their goals or in the products or services it provides, without having introduced significant changes (or no changes at all) in its environmental policies. They assure us that they do less damage to nature, but in reality, it underlies a purpose to increase profits. They know that nowadays, “green” sales are in.

Greenwashing can come in different forms, but the most common one is when companies spend more time, money and energy promoting their products as eco-friendly left and right instead of making them truly green, using words like “sustainable”, “vegan”, “eco” or, of course, “green” simply as a marketing ploy.

Other types of greenwashing are when they promote products made with “alternative materials” that actually have a higher carbon footprint than traditional materials, or when they even distort their environmental policy results, going to the extremes of cheating on relevant tests. Just as Volkswagen did on American air pollution tests from 2008 to 2015.

Where did the term ‘greenwashing’ come from?

Essentially, greenwashing is a form of whitewashing. The term arose in the ’80s when Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher, used it to refer to a resort he visited that despite promoting the reuse of towels, didn’t have clear recycling strategies within its corporate policies.

On a research trip to Samoa, Westerveld noticed that all over the resort were signs asking guests to reuse their towels in order to “save the environment”. At that time, most people received their news mainly from television, radio, newspapers and other print media. The ease with which we can investigate whether something is accurate or not did not exist at that time, so when guests at this hotel saw the posters, they believed what they read. But the New Yorker researcher didn’t believe a word of it.

It was in 1986 when Westerveld wrote an essay on this event, exposing the resort’s true intentions behind its “environmental” facade. Turns out that the resort was simply trying to reduce costs by not having to wash towels.

Why is greenwashing problematic?

Greenwashing is problematic because of the harm it can cause to the environment and ourselves. When people purchase products that have false or misleading branding, they are harming the environment unintentionally. Customers think they’re helping the planet or that they’re being healthy by purchasing stuff from these companies, but that’s far from the truth.

Greenwashing is not only bad for the environment or ourselves, but also for the companies that practice it. At the end of the day, greenwashing damages a company’s image. If they appear dishonest to the public, their profits may decay. Not worthy.

Is greenwashing illegal?

In addition to being unethical, greenwashing is illegal. Well… Technically.

Both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established guidelines to address misleading claims and protect consumers by preventing “deceptive and unfair business practices”. These guidelines are called “Green Guides” and also help companies understand how to make legitimate green claims but in reality, greenwashing can go under the table. Many brands don’t disclose certain information just to make them look sustainable and eco-friendly while making vague and nonspecific claims about their products. As “misrepresentation from customers” is legal, you can still see them on the shelves of any supermarket.

In Canada, there is the Competition Bureau, an independent law enforcement agency which states that greenwashing is illegal. It affirms that the Competition Act, a series of guidelines for claims in advertisements, takes aim at environmental claims that are vague, non-specific, incomplete, or irrelevant and that cannot be supported through verifiable test methods. It also has more specific guidelines for industries and advertisers in regards to environmental claims, released in 2008. But still, some companies manage to get away with it.

What is the difference between CSR and greenwashing?

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is an international term that refers to the moral and ethical obligation of companies in their relationships with employees, the environment, competitors, the economy and other areas. This is the major difference it has with greenwashing, as greenwashing is only environment-related. CSR can have to do with the environment, but not necessarily so.

Plus, the term “greenwashing” is only used for malicious marketing strategies that don’t truly help the environment. In contrast, CSR may or may not be motivated by an organization’s interest in polishing its image and advertise its products as something they aren’t. If a company doesn’t report consistently over an extended period nor makes data available for public examination, their CSR can become greenwashing. But CSR isn’t greenwashing by itself.

How to tell if a company is greenwashing?

As the demand for environmentally sustainable products has increased in recent years, the awareness of greenwashing has increased too. Customers need transparency from companies in order to corroborate that their practices are truly green. But how can we tell the difference between real, positive commitments to change and greenwashing?

For starters, criteria you can take into account is the overall brand’s level of transparency. Can you find details about the manufacturing processes of their products? Do they use complicated terminology to avoid giving the origin of their products? If they don’t, red flag! But if you need specific evidence to corroborate your suspicions, here are three key questions you can ask yourself:

Do they use percentages?: A technique widely used in greenwashing is to talk about quantities, never percentages. For example: “We avoided the emission of 2,500 kg of CO2 last year”. Then we find out that this is equivalent to 0.002% of the company’s total annual CO2 emissions.

What proportion of the company’s product is sustainable?: It’s important to consider how much of what they are producing is sustainable. If they use a small eco “achievement” to cover up much larger damage, only showing that a small portion of their product is sustainable while the rest of their product continues to create a negative environmental impact, rest assured that they are riding the wave of greenwashing. 

Do they act in fields that have nothing to do with the company’s activity?: Many companies try to wash their environmental image by taking part in and financing “eco-friendly” activities, but not in their area. They do so in areas that are far removed from their activity and moreover, their participation lacks direction.

What companies are guilty of greenwashing?

Many companies, more than you think, have been guilty of greenwashing. The most popular case was mentioned at the beginning of this post, and you probably already heard about it. We’re talking about the case of Volkswagen and its “clean” diesel cars. In 2015, this automaker was involved in a scandal (also known as Dieselgate) for installing software in 11 million vehicles that falsified the information on its pollutant gas emissions in American air pollution tests.

Other greenwashing companies are British Petroleum (BP), who won the Best Greenwash award in 2002 for their Beyond Petroleum rebranding campaign (they literally changed their logo to a green flower while supporting fossil fuel exploitation), Nestlé and its “sustainably sourced chocolate” who has a terrible supply chain that contributes to deforestation in West Africa and labour exploitation, Windex and its “non-toxic” toxic products and even Herbal-Essences who uses questionable ingredients for their shampoos.

Product Examples that use Greenwashing Marketing

Almost any product can be greenwashed, but food-related products are one of the most susceptible to this slimy practice. Back in 2008 Tyson Foods, the 2nd world’s largest meat processor, got busted for claiming that their chickens were “all-natural”. They didn’t hesitate to use those two words in all of their packaging when in reality their chickens were treated with antibiotics and fed GMO corn.

Another greenwashing product is Frito Lay’s famous chips. The company tried to trick people into thinking that their chips were healthier by branding them “natural” and opting for an earthy-coloured packaging (a typical false eco-friendly move). But we all know that the only difference between their Classic chips and the Natural ones is the thickness of the chip itself and a variation of the oil being used.

Moving away from the food industry, another product that often falls into greenwashing is clothing. In 2019, H&M launched its own line of “green” clothing titled “Conscious”. They claim that at least 50% of each piece is made from sustainable materials, like organic cotton or recycled polyester. But what about the other 50%? How can that line be “green” when it takes about 20,000 litres of water to produce cotton? 

How to avoid buying products that have been greenwashed

Now that you know how to spot companies that are greenwashing, how can you avoid buying greenwashed products from companies you don’t know? Well, first of all, bypass the product’s packaging and read the label. You can be picky and also notice whether the packaging is biodegradable or not, but let’s focus on its content first.

It doesn’t matter if the brand shows you a green field with colourful flowers or someone picking up a potato straight from the ground if the label shows you harmful ingredients for yourself or the environment or worse, doesn’t have specific details on the product, don’t buy their shenanigans.

You should also look for third-party certifications, proof that your products are actually healthy and eco-friendly. But what if the stamp just says “Happy Planet Certified”? Should you trust it? Not necessarily.

Some reliable certifications are the EcoLogo, Certified B Corp Logo and Fairtrade Canada Logo for sustainability, EnergyStar for energy efficiency, Canada Organic Logo and Marine Stewardship Council Certification Logo for food-related products and CSA Group Certified for forest products such as paper and wood. In the U.S. you can also trust EnergyStar, USDA Organic for food products, Non-GMO Project and Green Seal.

Even if the product you want to buy has third-party certifications, some eco-labels are suspect. If you see one you don’t recognize, visit Ecolabel Index. They keep track of more than 400 different eco-labels in 197 countries across 25 industry sectors so if the label you see isn’t there, leave the product where you find it to prevent getting greenwashed.

Last but not least, don’t fall for a product that uses generic terms like “eco”, “recycled”, “green”, “organic” or “natural”. A lot of brands write those words all over their packaging, but don’t specify why their products are “safe” or “natural”. 

Greenwashing is a Slimy ‘Game’ that some Companies like to play

Being green can be a source of competitive advantage for companies, but when pursuing a truly green agenda, companies should be honest, realistic, and take ownership of their commitments. However, there are companies that have no interest whatsoever in being truly green. What they do is participate in the “game” of greenwashing to gain customers and “reputation”.  But the important thing is that we don’t participate in this game.

It’s crucial to read between the lines in advertising campaigns and to be well informed about green terminology so that we protect ourselves and the environment. It’s a dirty practice, so just do your best to avoid getting greenwashed.

I’ve done a ton of work on this website to make sure brands are talking the talk and walking the walk. Take a look at the zero waste section, the green beauty section, my sustainable/ethical fashion posts, sustainable living topics and green cleaning. All these brands are vetted carefully, I know and speak directly to most of the founders. My brand directory features only the best of the best!

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