Greenwashing – Am all ears! Tell me about it.
The term ‘greenwashing’ is something you may not have heard thrown around very often. However, it is an important one to be aware of on your journey towards an eco-friendly lifestyle.
With the consumer base across the world becoming more environmentally aware and demanding eco-conscious products, it’s no wonder that companies are attempting to “showcase” their products as environmentally friendly. Many companies are also taking genuine steps towards green products and sustainability.
However, there are also plenty of businesses out there who look greener than they are. As an eco-conscious consumer, it is important to be able to take off those green-tinted glasses and identify which products and services are truly sustainable and which ones are not.
For example, when hotels who ask you to save water by not washing your towels. It can be a good idea to check if they are investing in other measures to help the environment. Also, if they are merely trying to save on their laundry costs and drive profits up.
What is greenwashing?
A play on the word ‘whitewashing’, greenwashing occurs when companies deliberately or unknowingly mislead their customers into believing their products are environmentally friendly. Basically, these companies spend more money on advertising their products as being sustainable than spending it to ensure that they actually are!
Greenwashing is carried out in many ways. Let us explore some popular ways companies greenwash.
When a brand invests in one area of sustainability, at the expense of another. For example, they might use organic cotton in their t-shirts, but not pay their garment workers a living wage to make them. Or they might call their jackets ‘vegan leather’ but make them from plastic instead.
When a brand claims to be sustainable but cannot provide any evidence, for example through scientific data, third-party certifications or independent audits.
When a brand uses terms such as ‘eco friendly’, ‘natural materials’ or ‘kind to the planet’, but haven’t gone beyond to actually define how their products can be described using these terms.
If something raises red flags in your mind, do your research and look into the company. More often than not, you’ll see you were right! (when they are filled with mineral oil.)
How can you spot greenwashing?
While greenwashing is not a new practice, a report by McKinsey states that Gen Zers prefer brands that are ethical which has driven the need for companies to portray themselves as environmentally friendly. The same report found that consumers are also demanding transparency instead of taking what marketers say at face value. Making sure that the products you purchase are ethical can take a little bit of work, so here are a few tips to get you started:
1| Check out websites thoroughly
When a company says they are ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’, it can be a good idea to check out their websites thoroughly. Look beyond the homepage and see what they share. Do they discuss their practices completely or are there simply broad statements that are left open to interpretation? What does their mission statement say?
A company that claims to be zero-waste will be more than happy to share what happens to the waste right from sourcing their raw materials to the delivery of their products to consumers.
2| Cradle to the Grave
A sustainable company in its truest form will consider the entire lifecycle of its product. Such a company will not just share the journey of how the product makes it to the market, and ultimately to you but also share details on what to do with the product once it is no longer usable.
H&M, for example, has been promoting its sustainability initiatives through its conscious collection. What is glossed over is the rest of its clothing – where it comes from, what fabric is used, and where it ends up. It has been cited as a prime example of greenwashing by many in the ethical fashion industry.
Many products advertise themselves as ‘green’, eco-friendly, or safe. However, there are no legal definitions for these terms, and it is up to us as consumers to decide how green, eco-friendly, or safe they really are. Such companies make a big deal about how their products are toxin and pollutant-free, which further research shows that they can’t legally contain anyway. Often, you may find that they contain other toxins and pollutants that are legal in minute quantities.
Apps like Beat the Microbead can take the headache out of memorising lists of toxins and pollutants.
4| The People Involved
Sustainable companies also take the social and economic impacts of their products and processes into consideration. Companies that are inclusive, look after their workers and pay fair wages are happy to tell you so. A company that claims to have an ethical supply chain will be happy to share the story of their products from source to market.
A great example of this is Tony’s chocolate that is trying to end slavery and child labour on cocoa plantations.
5| Be Kind
It’s also important to remember that smaller companies may need to invest plenty of time and money they don’t have to become completely sustainable. So, if you do feel the need to call someone out, it can be a good idea to investigate their long-term plans and see if they are like us – moving towards sustainability one step at a time. Remember, transparency is key and any company with their hearts in the right places will be happy to tell you about the measures they are taking in the long run and correct unintentional instances of greenwashing.
This may seem like a lot to take in, but don’t be overwhelmed. The more we start asking the right questions and demanding transparency and accountability from brands, the more likely we are to see those changes coming into effect.
If you are feeling confused if a particular product is an attempt at greenwashing, feel free to write in and ask for help. I’ll attempt to clarify any doubts you may have.
Until next time my fellow eco-warrior,