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What is greenwashing and how to avoid it

A lot of businesses and products use a tactic called “greenwashing”. According to the wise old Wikipedia, greenwashing is “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly and therefore ‘better’; appeal to nature.” That’s all just a fancy way of saying that companies make their products seem sustainable to encourage more people to buy their products. These tactics aren’t that hard to employ either. Adding some green leaves to the package, running an ad that shows waterfalls, forest and other natural scenes, or changing the packaging colour to green gives the impression that the product is more environmentally friendly than any other products. 

Why is greenwashing bad? There are three big reasons: The first is that companies can advertise their products as sustainable without actually having to live up to the claim that is being made. Because there isn’t always tight regulation over the methods, colors, and wording that companies can use to market their products, many companies use tactics that influence the impression customers have and give the impression of sustainability when no real sustainable action or changes are being made. And this false impression leads to the second reason why greenwashing is harmful. 

It misinforms and takes advantage of customers that are truly trying to make more sustainably minded choices. As we continue to get more disheartening news about how we are harming our planet and temperatures are rising beyond redeemable levels, many people are looking to change their behaviour for the better. The tricky part though, is that many companies (but certainly not all) are taking advantage of these good intentions and greenwashing their products for their own capital benefit rather than making sustainable products or changes in their company. 

Lastly, it undermines other brands and clouds advertising space. Greenwashing is terrible because it adds visual noise to isles of products and steals attention away from the genuine efforts of other companies that are actually trying to make a difference. 

When trying to identify greenwashed products look for 

  1. The color green. Putting this color on packaging is an easy way to alter and improve customer perception without making any real changes to the product, packaging, processing, or production of the item. 
  2. Images of nature. A picture of a beautiful meadow of wildflowers, a gurgling brook, or a jungle covered mountain all make us think of nature 
  3. Vague claims. Words like “100% natural”, “eco-friendly”, “recyclable”, even “biodegradable” are all rather floofy words that are not strictly governed for their use in marketing, and therefore can be used freely 

Honestly, because of the gradual shift of public interest toward caring for nature, the vast majority of companies are now making claims as to how they’re being sustainable. For example, Coca-Cola was found to be the top plastic polluter for the second year in a row but when you visit their website, they are making claims such as this:

“Business is important, but not at any cost. People matter. Our planet matters. That is why sustainability is embedded into every aspect of our business. We are working towards a World Without Waste. We’re returning every drop of water we use back to nature. We are investing in our local communities. We act in ways that aim to create a more sustainable and better shared future.”

We can see that they are greenwashing their company because they are not only producing millions of environmentally harmful plastic bottles, but they are also using lovely pictures of nature and lots of vague statements in their sustainability section with very little proof of their efforts. For example: 

They say: “We will help collect a bottle or can for each one we sell by 2030.”

However, they are not saying or showing any proof beyond this statement. There are no concrete and publicly available plans written up for how they’re going to accomplish this goal.

The shift towards trying to be sustainable, even if it is a lot of greenwashing, is not all bad though. It is sad that the greenwashing often drowns out the genuine efforts of other companies that are actually trying to make concrete changes, but at least there is a steadily growing interest and public exposure towards environmentalism. If you’re very serious about wanting to find sustainable companies though, look for these signs. 

  • Are they supporting claims that they’re making?
    • Rather than just saying “we’re trying to do_____”, have they posted pictures, are they giving facts, and are they showing the progress of the actions they’re claiming they’re doing?
  • Are they doing more than one thing?
    • If they’re getting their energy from solar panels, that’s great! But companies that are serious about their commitment to being sustainable will go beyond just one thing to show that they want to make a real difference
  • Do they offer high quality items that won’t break for several years or offer a lifetime warranty?
    • Many companies sell products that have planned obsolescence designed into them so that their customers will be forced to come back and repurchase the same item. Who else has bought 3+ printers in the past 10 years because they keep breaking? Or bought a new phone because the old one is just getting so slow?
  • Do they put people before profits?
    • Are they producing products in North America? Are they offering a fair wage? These are all signs that the company cares about people and the environment rather than just growing their profits by cutting costs.

Greenwashing is honestly very tricky to spot since it has become a nearly universal marketing tactic. But there are many genuine companies out there that actually want to make a difference, so it’s worth it to investigate a company and its motives before supporting it. I’m sure that you’ve heard of the saying “Vote with your Dollars”. And although our small changes in purchase behaviour can feel pointless, that bit of extra research and shift in our perspective can make a big difference when we’re consistent with our actions and share what we learn with others as well. Spread the change!