How to Avoid Greenwashing

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Sala Tran-Huu
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More and more the demand for environmentally friendly products and practices has grown tremendously, and many companies have capitalized on this trend by using "green" marketing tactics.

It comes with no surprise that not all of these claims are genuine, with enough companies engaging in greenwashing—the act of making misleading or exaggerated environmental claims to make their products appear more eco-friendly than they actually are—that consumers are starting to catch on. This practice is not only intentionally deceptive but also undermines legitimate efforts to protect the environment.

In this blog, we will explore what greenwashing is, why it's harmful, and how to avoid falling for it. We'll examine some real-world examples of greenwashing, discuss whether or not it is illegal, and offer tips on how to spot and avoid it, so you can make informed decisions and support genuinely sustainable products and services.

From consumers to business owners to anyone and everyone in between, this guide will provide readers from any background with valuable insights into how to navigate the confusing world of green marketing.

What is Greenwashing

Jay Westerveld's observation about the hotel industry's "reuse your towel" program was a pivotal moment in the development of the concept of greenwashing. He noticed that while the hotel was encouraging guests to reuse their towels to save water and energy, they were not implementing other environmentally friendly practices, such as reducing the use of harmful chemicals in their cleaning products or minimizing waste.

Westerveld’s insight revealed that the hotel was using the “reuse your towel” program as a marketing tactic to create the impression that they were environmentally responsible, while they were actually engaging in harmful practices.

Since the coining of the term, greenwashing has become increasingly prevalent, as companies recognize the importance of sustainability to consumers and incorporate environmental messaging into their marketing efforts.

For example, companies may use phrases such as “natural,” “eco-friendly,” or “green” on their packaging or in their advertising to create the impression that their products are better for the environment than they actually are. In some cases, companies may make outright false claims about the environmental benefits of their products or services.

Despite growing awareness of the issue, greenwashing remains a pervasive problem. It can be difficult for consumers to navigate the complex landscape of environmental claims and to determine which products or services are genuinely environmentally friendly.

Because of this, continued scrutiny and education are necessary to combat the prevalence of greenwashing and to ensure that companies are held accountable for their environmental claims.

Why is Greenwashing Bad

Now that we have a clear understanding of what greenwashing is, it is important to explore why it is a harmful practice. While companies may engage in greenwashing as a way to appear environmentally responsible and attract eco-conscious consumers, the truth is that this type of marketing can and does reap negative consequences. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss why greenwashing is bad and how it can impact not only consumers but eco-conscious companies and the environment at large.

1. Misleading Consumers

Greenwashing misleads consumers who are trying to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. When companies make false or exaggerated claims about their products' environmental benefits, consumers may be misled into thinking they are making an environmentally responsible choice when they are not. This undermines the efforts of consumers who are genuinely trying to make a positive impact on the environment.

2. Unfair Competition

Greenwashing can harm legitimate companies that are genuinely committed to sustainability. When companies engage in greenwashing, they create unfair competition for companies that are investing significant resources into environmentally friendly practices. This can lead to a race to the bottom, where companies prioritize appearing eco-friendly over actually implementing sustainable practices.

3. Complacency About Environmental Issues

Greenwashing can contribute to a sense of complacency about environmental issues. When companies make misleading claims about their products' environmental benefits, it can create the impression that environmental problems are being adequately addressed, when in reality, they are not. This can make it more difficult to mobilize support for genuine environmental solutions and reduce the urgency of addressing environmental challenges.

4. Harmful to the Environment

Greenwashing can have a negative impact on the environment itself. When companies make false claims about their products' environmental benefits, they may encourage consumers to purchase products that are not actually sustainable. This can lead to increased waste, resource depletion, and pollution, which are all significant environmental problems.

To wrap things up, greenwashing is a deceptive marketing tactic that harms consumers, legitimate companies committed to sustainability, the environment, and contributes to complacency about environmental issues. We must raise awareness about greenwashing and promote genuine sustainability to create a more environmentally responsible economy and society.

How can we do this? Well, calling out real-world examples of greenwashing is a good starting point.

Examples of Greenwashing

These are only a few of the many "green" companies that were in fact caught red-handed. Do any of the names look familiar? 👀

1. Volkswagen

In 2015, Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions tests for their diesel engines. The company had programmed the engines to emit lower levels of pollutants during testing, but higher levels during normal driving conditions. This deception had a significant negative impact on the environment, with increased pollution from the millions of affected vehicles. The scandal also resulted in massive financial losses for the company.

2. H&M

In 2019, H&M launched a sustainability campaign promoting their Conscious Collection, claiming that the collection was made from sustainable materials and processes. However, an investigation by the Norwegian Consumer Authority found that some of the materials used in the collection were not sustainable, and that the company had provided insufficient information to back up its sustainability claims. This greenwashing resulted in consumers being misled about the environmental impact of the collection and the company's commitment to sustainability.

3. Nestle

In 2019, Nestle also was accused of greenwashing with their launch of a new line of bottled water called "Pure Life". The company claimed that the water was sustainably sourced and that the packaging was environmentally friendly. However, investigations revealed that the water was sourced from areas experiencing water scarcity, and that the plastic bottles were not recyclable in many areas. This greenwashing resulted in increased waste and resource depletion.

4. ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil has been accused of greenwashing for years, with the company claiming to be committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while continuing to invest in fossil fuels. In 2021, investigations revealed that the company had misled the public and its investors about the risks of climate change for decades, despite knowing about the risks since the 1970s. This greenwashing has contributed to increased greenhouse gas emissions and the negative impact of climate change.

5. McDonald's

In 2020, McDonald's launched a "Green New Deal" campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their restaurants. However, critics argued that the campaign did not go far enough and was a form of greenwashing. McDonald's continues to contribute to deforestation by using palm oil in their products, and the company has not committed to phasing out the use of single-use plastics.

6. Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola has been criticized for their use of single-use plastic bottles and their contribution to plastic pollution. In response, the company launched a sustainability campaign and claimed to be committed to reducing plastic waste. However, investigations found that Coca-Cola continued to produce large amounts of plastic waste, and the company's efforts to recycle were insufficient. Coca-Cola's greenwashing has been seen as a way to maintain their profits while avoiding responsibility for being the world’s largest plastic polluter by a long shot.

These examples show that greenwashing can have significant negative consequences for the environment, consumers, and even the companies engaging in greenwashing. It is important to be vigilant and do research to ensure that companies are living up to their environmental claims.

Which leads us into…

How to Avoid Greenwashing

Here are a few handy tips and tricks that may help you spot greenwashing in the wild and keep you from falling prey to misleading marketing schemes:

1. Do Your Research

Look beyond the company's marketing claims and do some research on their environmental practices. Check if they have any certifications or awards from recognized environmental organizations.

2. Be Wary of Vague or Unsubstantiated Claims

Phrases like "natural," "eco-friendly," or "green" are often used in greenwashing, but they are vague and can be misleading. Look for specific and measurable environmental claims, such as reduced carbon emissions or the use of recycled materials.

3. Check the Packaging

Greenwashing can also be done through misleading packaging. Look for third-party certifications and eco-labels that indicate that the product has met specific environmental standards.

Be warned: the presence of a recycling symbol does not guarantee an item can be recycled. Unfortunately, recycling is not standardized (at least, not in the United States of America), so whether or not something is recyclable requires additional research based on your location.

4. Pay Attention to the Big Picture

While a product or service may be marketed as environmentally friendly, it's important to consider the broader context. For example, a company that sells sustainable clothing but has unethical labor practices may not be as eco-friendly as it appears.

By being informed and vigilant, you can avoid falling for greenwashing and support genuinely sustainable products and services. Remember, every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in, so choose wisely!

Until next time, shop smart and ship smart.