Everything we consume has an environmental impact, and consumers are more aware of that than ever. 40% of UK shoppers ‘actively buy products that are environmentally and animal friendly, with a further 41% keeping these issues in mind when purchasing’. Businesses also recognise this shift in public awareness. Brands helping customers to manage eco-friendlier lifestyles or to create environmentally friendly homes can gain and retain loyal followings by positioning themselves as sustainable. Aligning a brand with the social conscience of a target demographic is a shrewd move. Consumers are in a powerful position, too. They get to spend their money with the companies they think are most deserving of it. But it’s also a vulnerable position to be in. Companies can easily create false credentials, exaggerate claims, or hide behind irrelevant and bloated language. They can also lie.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when a company claims to be more eco-friendly than it really is. Greenwashing isn’t always deliberate. Sometimes a PR or marketing team may have gotten a little carried away. Occasionally, it may be due to a lack of understanding about the environmental impact a company has. Often, however, it’s part of a calculated strategy designed to appeal to a specific audience. It’s hard to spot greenwashing because so often consumers take claims at face value. If a brand says they’re eco-friendly, they’re often believed. But eco-friendly claims can be hard to substantiate. Companies often over-inflate their credentials. They’ll use vague language that reads well but really says very little.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Terra Choice, a Canadian eco-marketing and environmental consultancy, created the ‘7-sins of greenwashing’. It listed some of the most common signs of greenwashing. Terra Choice also investigated thousands of ‘eco-friendly’ products and found that 98% was guilty of at least one sin. We’ll summarise the list below, but you can read Terra Choice’s PDF document online. You’ll probably recognise at least one of these from your own shopping habits. And if you’ve worked in marketing or PR, you may even have used a few of these yourself.
The hidden trade-off
This is when companies highlight one eco-friendly aspect of a product but ignore the rest. Brands commonly shout about eco-friendly packaging, but won’t mention the carbon emissions emitted during the manufacturing process.
This is when a company’s eco-friendly claims aren’t supported by any evidence.
The sin of vagueness
Terra Choice offer a couple of good examples of this. Many companies will advertise chemical-free products. Consumers see this and assume it’s a good thing, because chemicals are bad, right? Some are, but chemicals exist everywhere. We couldn’t survive without chemicals. They’re even in the human body. Nothing is chemical-free, not really. It’s the same with non-toxic. It sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Not much. Natural ingredients can be toxic. And a lot of safe things can be toxic in high enough doses. Terrachoice also points out that consumers should be careful of the label eco-friendly. Unless it’s backed up by evidence and specific elaboration, then it’s a useless epithet.
This is when a company will trumpet an eco-friendly attribute but is only doing what the law requires it to. Terra Choice gives the example of CFC-free products; CFCs were banned in the UK 30-years ago.
Lesser of two evils
Terrachoice uses examples of organic tobacco for this one. Whilst the product may be eco-friendly, it obscures the true nature of the industry. Another example it gives is fuel-efficient SUVs.
Sin of fibbing
This is when the company lies or provides no proof to its claims
Worshipping False Labels
Companies will pretend that they have third-party endorsement but don’t. Sometimes they’ll even set up their own third-party endorser as though they’ve been independently assessed.
Examples of Greenwashing
You’ll find plenty of greenwashing examples online. It’s always worth researching companies to make sure their eco-credentials stack up. Here are a few clear and well-known examples. Companies are hoping you don’t dig too deeply and uncover their environmental shortcomings. Website Kempii points out that zero-waste to landfill is not the same as zero-waste. It uses the example of McDonald's. McDonald's in the UK pledged to send zero-waste-to-landfill by 2020. Unfortunately, McDonald’s only plans on recycling 50% of that. The other 50% is incinerated. So, no, none of it is going to landfill but incineration isn’t eco-friendly. It emits greenhouse gases. A Considered Life uses McDonald's in a second example. When the fast-food company banned plastic straws in its restaurants it drew praise from customers. The probably was that the new paper straws couldn’t be recycled in the UK. What’s more is that the cups were still plastic so it made little difference to the company’s overall environmental contribution. The same website also uses Loreal. Despite selling a range of vegan-friendly beauty and skin products, Loreal still tests on animals. Irish low-budget airline RyanAir once advertised itself as being the UK’s lowest emission airline. Eco-conscious passengers may have found the airline a more attractive option given that it was emitting fewer greenhouse gases than other airlines. Unfortunately, Ryanair was unable to provide relevant and up-to-date evidence of this claim. They were using statistics from many years earlier and had left out several key competitors. The advert was banned for being misleading.
You can also read more about greenwashing by energy suppliers on our energy justification page.
As a consumer you can choose to spend your money where you want. Don’t be afraid of switching retailers, service provides, brands or businesses if the one you’re using is trying to greenwash you. Research is the essential tool of anyone looking to spend with genuinely environmentally-friendly companies. Don’t forget to look for smaller retailers, too. Many of which may have gone into business for the same reason that you’re shopping around for the most ethical store or service. In the internet age, you can also tell companies directly why you’re not shopping or patronising them anymore. Let them know. Give them the chance to change. If they don't, spend your money somewhere else.