Week 12: Spot the Greenwashing
As we wrap up the third month of weekly challenges, you should be able to see how much you have already lowered your impact on the planet. Way to go! Unfortunately, despite all your hard work and honest efforts, you might be surprised to learn that you could unknowingly be falling victim to greenwashing. This sneaky, powerful, and profitable marketing strategy continues to become more prevalent. This week we will discuss what this term means, what it looks like in our everyday lives, and how to make sure it doesn’t spoil our low-impact living efforts.
What is Greenwashing?
Simply put, greenwashing occurs when a company or organization attempts to profit on the growing demand for environmentally sound products by misleading consumers to believe that a product or service is sustainable, when it is not. Additionally, greenwashing includes deflecting attention away from the environmental harm a product or service is causing, and can even take the form of pretending to be an ally in the fight for climate action.
of global consumers
Roughly 66% of global consumers say they are willing to pay more for sustainable brands.
Why is Greenwashing Bad?
Not only is greenwashing deceptive, it’s harming environmental efforts and the planet in several ways.
- Greenwashing dilutes the efforts of companies that are actually sustainable and trying to lower environmental footprint.
- It accelerates environmental harm (read: Climate Emergency).
- It creates confusion for consumers.
- It makes it tricky (and frustrating) to spot the businesses and organizations providing truly sustainable products, services, and initiatives.
What Does Greenwashing Look Like?
There are quite a few marketing strategies companies use to trick consumers into believing products or services are sustainable.
View Recent Examples Common Marketing Strategies
- Renaming, rebranding, or repackaging to appear more natural, wholesome, or free of chemicals
- Use of visual clichés (leaves, trees, pastoral field, mountains), suggestive colors (GREEN!) and buzzwords like “all-natural”, “biodegradable” & “non-toxic”
- Vague, misleading labeling like “new + improved,” “50% more recycled content,” “100% recyclable,” or the “chasing arrows” symbol with no reference to if the product, the packaging, or only parts of the product are recyclable
- Hidden impacts and trade-offs by advertising a new change as sustainable, while hiding its negative effects. The use of bioplastics is a big example growing in popularity, which we discuss in more detail below.
Capitalism and Consumer Confusion
As plastic production continues to sharply escalate each year, companies are spending millions quietly lobbying against regulations, while actively spending millions more to clean up plastic’s bad reputation.
of plastic waste
Only 8.7% of the 35.7 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2018 was recycled. While plastics are found in all major MSW categories, the containers and packaging category had the most plastic tonnage at over 14.5 million tons in 2018.
Environmental Protection Agency
These mixed messages threaten our collective ability to avoid catastrophic climate change.” Adam Kanzer, head of stewardship for the Americas BNP Paribas Asset Management
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers several examples of greenwashing on its website, but let’s shine the spotlight on one of the most prominent and current examples: the greenwashing of single-use plastics and bioplastics.
Many companies are rebranding, jumping on the buzzword bandwagon, or pivoting to “bioplastics” to convey the idea that their products are more sustainable than competing brands. Although bioplastics signal progress, in no way should they be viewed as the solution to plastic pollution. Bioplastics are heavily marketed as planet-friendly because they are made from bio-based polymers instead of petrochemicals. These plastics are touted as “natural” and “plant-based” biodegradable plastics that are good for the planet because they can break down thousands of years faster than traditional plastics. But the hidden fact is that bioplastics need very specific conditions to decompose that involve access to oxygen and sunlight—both of which are scarce in the landfills where they are landing after use. Furthermore, many bioplastics require the use of or blending with other plastics during the manufacturing process. At the end of the day, despite marketing claims, independent research suggests these bioplastics are further contributing to microplastic pollution and sea litter.
Here are some tips for distinguishing truly sustainable products and services from those that are greenwashed:
- A product’s marketing claim should not directly overstate or imply an environmental attribute or benefit. Look for supporting statements in plain language and readable type in close proximity to the claim. If a product claims a benefit compared to the competition, the claim should be substantiated. Additionally, sustainable marketing claims will specify whether the information refers to the whole product and packaging, or just a portion of it.
- Select items with the most minimal packaging (ideally package-free), and avoid single-use plastic products and packaging. Exercise caution with bioplastics. Products and packaging should be manufactured with 100% recycled and fully biodegradable materials using renewable energy.
Pro Tip: Glass and metal are much more sustainable packaging choices when an unpackaged option is not available.
- Choose products designed to be reusable, and support companies that offer responsible end-of-life programs for their products (repair/refurbish/refill programs). We promise they are out there, and we feel very fortunate to work with some of the best.
- Look for full transparency in ingredients, impact, detailed directions on end of life disposal, and where the sourcing originates. Sourcing as local as possible is ideal—No matter how amazing a product is, it is not very sustainable if it is being shipped 1000s of miles across the globe before entering your household.
- Be aware of the rise in the use of paid influencers on social media as a greenwashing marketing strategy.
If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled, or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned, or removed from production.Pete Seeger
Opt to Act
Starting this week, there are two actions we can begin to implement to help us all have access to better buying choices:
- Call out greenwashing when you spot it to hold companies accountable
- Shift the spotlight to those doing the right thing!
- Vote with your dollars.
- Give climate-positive businesses and organizations a “like,” “shout out,” and “share” to amplify their efforts.
Enjoy the boost in confidence knowing you have a choice in creating a more sustainable future by choosing to support truly sustainable brands, local businesses, and organizations working hard to protect the planet! How are your sustainable shifts going?
As always, we love hearing from you; and we love when you #shareyourshift!