What is greenwashing?
|Greenwashing is when a company or organisation communicates a false message or provides false information about a product or service to appear more environmentally sound. They market themselves as more sustainable or environmentally friendly than they are, instead of becoming more sustainable or environmentally friendly. Appearing to be more environmentally sound improves the overall image of a company/product. Thus, greenwashing is a tactic used to increase profits.|
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. What many people describe as the gold standard of greenwashing was in the mid-1980s, when a company commissioned a series of ads showing their employees engaging in the protection of wild animals. These adverts showcased a company dedicated to environmental causes, such as wildlife conservation. The company in question is Chevron, an oil company.
Some people are incredibly conscious of what they buy, carrying out meticulous research and boycotting certain materials, processes or entire companies. False declarations of sustainability do not wash over these people (if you pardon the pun). However, some people lack the time to carry out their own research, or don’t know what they’re looking for. Equally, some consumers would prefer to buy a greener product when given the choice, but are not super fussed overall. Greenwashing really preys upon these people.
Plastic straws made the headlines after the Blue Planet II series. Straws became the poster child of #NoPlastic campaigns and businesses capitalised on this opportunity. Businesses knew if they replaced their plastic straws with paper or biodegradable straws, or ban their use of straws entirely, their business would be perceived as ‘green’. This gave businesses an incredibly easy way to improve their environmental image without actually doing much for the environment. The fact is straws account for 0.0025% of marine litter, and while it is still good to avoid using them, this is literally a drop in the ocean.
Greenwashing is a scam designed to prey on everyday people. Greenwashing creates the false impression that a company has done the work for you: they have made the effort to be more environmentally conscious so you don’t have to worry. You can buy their stuff guilt-free and without doing your own research because if it says they’re ‘sustainable’, why would you doubt them?
A big problem with sustainability is that when a product is described as ‘sustainable’, this is not a legally universal term. Whereas ‘organic’ is a certified term, whereby products must be inspected and meet certain criteria before they can call themselves ‘organic’ (which has its own issues as well, namely that this process costs money and so marginalises small businesses and doesn’t incentivise people to create organic products – I digress); anyone can just say something is sustainable and they do not have to “prove” it.
How to spot and avoid Greenwashing
Greenwashing is not always easy to spot. If someone is telling you their product is sustainable, then it’s reasonable to believe them. Here are my top tips for spotting greenwashing:
1. Look out for vague language and ask questions!
E.g. “This top is made from sustainable materials.”
What materials? Where and how were those materials sourced? Where was the top made and under what conditions?
2. Focus on finding sustainable brands, not sustainable products
Support brands that are committed to being entirely sustainable rather than brands that bring out the occasional ‘sustainable product’. The latter is greenwashing by marketing one sustainable product to conceal or off-set their other unsustainable practises.
3. Look out for trade-offs within the products themselves
Often brands will offer one element of sustainability to mask an unsustainable product.
E.g. Using recycled packaging but doing nothing to reduce the impact of the product itself.
4. Consider every element of the production process
From conceptualising an idea to the product being in your hand.
E.g. If a seemly sustainable product is produced abroad and had to fly thousands of miles to get to you, the carbon emissions from the travel likely undo the benefit of the product.
5. Consider every element of the product (don’t forget the packaging)
6. Ask yourself why you are buying this and whether you really need it
Don’t buy something you don’t need just because it’s marketed as sustainable.
Lastly, I would argue that spotting sustainable brands is easier than spotting greenwashing. Brands that prioritise sustainability will advertise this (as greenwashers do), but the difference is sustainable brands will also provide detail on how their products are sustainable. Most sustainable brands will have answered your questions for you before you have a chance to ask them, and probably have an entire webpage dedicated to explaining exactly how their products are sustainable. If you cannot find the information easily, then get suspicious.