Greenwashing: Let’s Talk About It

With an increase in demand for sustainable products, you may have heard the term “greenwashing.”

Many companies are trying to appeal to eco-conscious consumers by implementing eco-friendly marketing tactics. However, not all of their eco-friendly claims are legitimate.

When a company’s environmental claims lack evidence, it’s called greenwashing, and it affects consumers and our environment alike.

It’s time to pull back the green curtain and shine a light on deceptive advertising.

What is greenwashing and how does it work?

Greenwashing is a misleading marketing practice companies use to create the illusion that their products or services are environmentally friendly. 

Companies will make exaggerated or false claims about the eco-friendliness of a product or service, despite evidence that what they’re selling isn’t eco-conscious. 

Greenwashing comes in many forms. It can range from vague claims like “eco-friendly” or “all-natural” to more specific claims like “biodegradable” or “made with recycled materials.”

These claims are often unsupported by credible evidence or industry standards, making it difficult for consumers to determine their validity. Because companies don’t provide proof for their statements, consumers have no choice but to take their word for it.

Greenwashing ultimately undermines the efforts of sustainable companies by making it more difficult for consumers to identify genuinely sustainable products and services.

Smokestack with green smoke

Why do companies utilize greenwashing tactics?

Greenwashing is a strategy that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Companies use greenwashing tactics for various reasons, from increasing sales to improving their brand image.

The ultimate goal is to use greenwashing to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers who are willing to pay a premium for products that they believe are sustainable and eco-friendly. 

Companies can increase their sales and profits by exploiting consumers looking to make ethical purchases while doing little to improve their environmental impact.

Greenwashing can also help companies improve their reputation.

When consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability and ethical business practices, companies may be compelled to use greenwashing to appear environmentally responsible without having to make any significant changes.

And if a company causes a negative environmental impact, it may use this misleading tactic as a form of “green deflecting.” 

They’re looking to shift the focus onto their positive impacts, no matter how small, so that consumers don’t dig deeper into their high carbon emissions or use of harmful chemicals.

Examples of greenwashing

There are a few infamous instances of greenwashing that have occurred in recent years.

Back in 2019, McDonald’s introduced paper straws as a way to address their plastic pollution issues. But it turned out that these paper straws were non-recyclable and not eco-friendly.

Keurig is another example of greenwashing. The corporate giant marketed their single-use coffee pods as recyclable to Canadians. They advertised that all you had to do was remove the top and empty out the coffee, then recycle the plastic pod.

But it turned out that the capsules were only recyclable in British Columbia and Quebec. And because the instructions weren’t clear enough, the rest of the provinces were stuck removing pods from recycling bins.

We can also look at H&M and their Conscious clothing line, which advertises clothing made from 100% cotton.

The 2021 report from Changing Markets Foundation found that 60% of sustainability clothing claims from high-street fashion brands were misleading. And H&M was the worst offender, with 96% of their sustainability claims proving false.

A more subtle way companies greenwash is through misleading packaging.

A product may have packaging that features natural elements (such as trees, leaves, or greenery), leading consumers to believe that the product is environmentally friendly or even a healthy alternative.

An example of this is Coca-Cola Life’s advertising. Made with “sweetness from natural sources,” Coke switches its classic red label for green, utilizing grassy fields to market its new drink.

Coca Cola Life greenwashing advertising

Effects of greenwashing

Impact on consumers and businesses

There are many ways that greenwashing can have an adverse impact on consumers.

For starters, greenwashing misleads consumers into believing that a product is more environmentally friendly than it really is. They then make decisions based on false information, which can harm both the environment and their wallets.

Eco-friendly products can cost up to 50% more than regular goods. Consumers pay more, thinking they’re doing their part to care for the environment, when in reality, they’re not.

This can then cause distrust. When consumers realize that a company’s environmental claims have misled them, it can decrease their trust in that company and make them less likely to buy from them in the future.

And for companies who rely on their sustainable reputation to move merchandise, this can be especially damaging.

For example, ECOS is a company that advertises its eco-friendly cleaning products as non-toxic, safe, and earth-friendly. But in August 2022, it was discovered that their products contained carcinogenic ingredients harmful to people and the environment.

Consumers raged at the brand after they posted a safety statement on Instagram. Attracted to the premium brand that promised safety for both consumers and the environment, many have taken to social media to discuss their disbelief and how they will no longer be using the brand.

Greenwashing can also contribute to a general sense of skepticism among consumers about environmental claims. Because greenwashing is so common, consumers are becoming less likely to trust a company’s statements.

And, unfortunately, this skepticism can make consumers less likely to take environmental issues seriously or take action to address them.

With so much misleading information circling news outlets, social media channels, and “eco-conscious” brands, consumers begin to feel helpless in the fight against global warming.

ECOS laundry detergent in front of nature background, greenwashing

Impact on the environment

Greenwashing can also significantly impact the environment and create a chain reaction that stunts progress.

Companies often utilize greenwashing to hide that their products are harmful to the environment. 

Whether they use excessive amounts of packaging, make products from unsustainable materials, or contribute to deforestation, their goal is to cover up their wrongdoings.

It’s also a way for them to avoid taking responsibility or doing research to make real change.

This undermines real environmental progress and can stunt efforts to address environmental issues by making it harder for consumers to tell the difference between products that are eco-friendly and those that are not.

Moreover, it can make it more difficult for businesses that are genuinely committed to sustainability to make a positive impact on the environment.

Many companies get away with greenwashing, which creates a false sense of progress. It makes them look like more is being done to address an issue, which can lead to complacency and a lack of urgency when addressing environmental issues.

Because of this, greenwashing can delay real change. When there’s so much backlash around an environmental movement, it can cause sustainable companies to delay their genuine efforts to address these problems until the talk dies down.

And if they don’t delay, their voices can get lost in all the buzz.

How to identify greenwashing

Greenwashing can be challenging to spot. 

When thinking about purchasing a product or service, you can identify if a company is greenwashing through the fine print. 

Companies that make misleading claims on their packaging or marketing materials will have specific details about what makes the product eco-friendly, but with no evidence to prove them.

Read through ingredients lists to see if a “natural” product is truly natural. More often than not, you’ll find two lists: one for natural ingredients and one for chemicals.

It’s also important to consider the company’s overall environmental record. If a company is known for its negative impact on the environment and it suddenly starts marketing sustainable products, it’s worth taking a closer look at what they’re selling.

If they can’t back up their claims, they could be greenwashing. Consider a company’s history with the environment and look for signs that they are taking real action to address environmental issues – especially ones their company has contributed to.

Remember to be vigilant and research a company properly to make informed choices on environmentally friendly products and services.

H&M Conscious tag

Red flags to look out for

There are some easy red flags that can indicate greenwashing.

1. Vague or broad claims

Companies that greenwash claim they’re sustainable but don’t provide the research to back those statements. Terms such as “eco-friendly,” “green,” and “biodegradable” can be greenwashing terms if the evidence isn’t given to prove these claims.

2. Irrelevant claims

Companies that make environmental claims that are not relevant to their product or service may be engaging in greenwashing. An example would be a company claiming their gas-fuelled car is “eco-friendly” because its cup holders are made from recycled plastic.

3. Contradictory claims

If a company makes an environmental claim, but its product contradicts that claim, then it’s probably greenwashing. For example, a company that claims to use sustainable materials but is known to have a poor track record on labour rights may be engaging in greenwashing.

4. Lack of third-party certifications

When a company claims its product is eco-friendly, it can prove these statements through third-party certifications. If a company isn’t displaying certifications that backup its claims, it may be greenwashing.

Be sure to do your research when it comes to third-party claims, as not all certifications do in-depth research into the companies they choose to support.

5. Unrealistic claims

Companies may make exaggerated claims about their environmental impact, such as claiming to be “100% biodegradable” or “completely carbon neutral,” to hide their negative effect on the environment.

Smokestacks with a green and grey filter

Difference between green marketing and greenwashing

Greenwashing and green marketing are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same thing.

While both involve promoting environmentally friendly products or services, the key difference is whether or not the claims are true.

Green marketing is a legitimate marketing strategy that promotes environmentally friendly products or services. 

Companies that engage in green marketing typically invest in research and development to create more sustainable products and adopt environmentally friendly practices in their operations. 

When they promote something as green, there’s evidence to show that their claims are valid.

How to avoid greenwashing

Greenwashing may seem unavoidable, but truly sustainable companies will have green flags to look out for.

Companies that are transparent about their environmental practices, impact, and goals are more likely to be committed to sustainability. 

And if their claims are measurable, specific, and backed by evidence or data, then you know they’re eco-friendly.

Another green flag is if a company engages with or supports its local communities. They’ll work to address environmental justice issues and show their commitment to protecting the environment.

Ultimately, thorough research into a company is the best way to determine if they use greenwashing as a marketing tactic.

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