Understanding and Avoiding the Dangers of Greenwashing
The term “greenwashing” refers to the deceitful practice of marketing products as environmentally friendly, while in reality, the company spends little time and money to ensure they minimise their environmental impact. The goal is to mislead environmentally conscious customers into purchasing products that can harm, rather than help, the earth.
As consumers become increasingly conscious of how their buying decisions impact the environment, greenwashing is becoming more widespread.
Is Greenwashing Ethical?
Consumers largely dislike greenwashing and view it as potentially unethical. By misrepresenting the ecological impact of the brand or product, the practice undermines people’s attempts to make their lives and homes more sustainable, achieve personal energy independence, and prevent further environmental damage.
Despite the shaky ethical ground on which greenwashing is built, a 2010 TerraChoice study found that 95% of green-marketed products use misleading claims in their advertising, ultimately creating consumer distrust against the small percentage of legitimately eco-friendly products.
The Negative Effects of Greenwashing
Greenwashing can result in numerous negative social and environmental repercussions.
The societal impacts of running a campaign like this could include:
- Appearing dishonest to the public, which harms the business’s reputation
- Negative employee behaviour or values
- Leading consumers to distrust legitimately eco-friendly brands
- Preventing society from focusing on sustainability improvements that can lead to real-world changes
The impacts of greenwashing don’t stop here, though; they extend into the environment as well.
Companies who greenwash don’t take steps to balance their ecological footprint. Therefore, consumers who buy from them can unknowingly contribute to environmental harm caused by the production of the products. Furthermore, these sales help influence the company’s bottom, encouraging the cycle of production and perhaps even the expansion of product offerings (and thus increasing the environmental impact).
Used plastic cups displaying an eco label that cannot be recycled.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
While greenwashing tactics are sneaky, the good news is there are several different warning signs you can look out for. This way, your purchasing decisions can help drive positive change while also benefiting the environment.
Do Your Research
When researching, it’s essential that you avoid investigating the product and instead focus on the company.
If you visit the company’s website, look for accolades or awards they’ve won, feedback from customers, as well as sustainability reports and partnerships with environmental groups. Legitimately eco-conscious companies are eager to share these details with prospective customers, so it could be a red flag for greenwashing if they don’t.
Don’t Be Fooled By Natural Imagery
Certain aesthetics, such as images of trees, lakes, waterfalls, and other aspects of nature, including the colour green, can lead consumers to assume that a product is environmentally friendly when that may not be the case.
Instead of eyeing just the imagery they use on their packaging, pick up the box and take a look at their ingredients, third-party affiliations, and any awards they’ve won.
Eco friendly products that may not as environmentally friendly as they claim to be.
Look for Third-Party Labels, Standards, or Recommendations
Businesses who greenwash will often avoid independent organisations that provide helpful insight into whether their products are sustainable. They’ll also sidestep any labels, standards, or recommendations instituted by third parties.
For example, when it comes to solar panels, look for companies that supply and manufacture models accredited by Green Power Australia, which sets stringent environmental and reporting standards for renewable electricity products.
In this regard, the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ newly established Environmental Claims in Advertising and Marketing Code intends to outline rigorous standards to help ensure that advertisers and marketers make realistic claims regarding environmental friendliness while also boosting consumer confidence in the environmental industry.
Consider The Substance of Their Claims
Companies who greenwash frequently use vague language to describe their products and deceive customers.
For example, there’s currently no universally accepted definition for “sustainable.” As a result, companies have a considerable amount of leeway when using the term, even when their practices don’t meet the general definition expected by customers.
Additional potential greenwashing terms you should look out for include:
- Environmentally friendly
- Locally grown
- Sustainably sourced
- What their customers “want” or “need.”
The good news is that you can verify or disprove a company’s claims by looking at the ingredients list, searching for reliable labels, and identifying which third parties have vetted their claims.
Don’t Get Distracted
Some brands will try to distract customers from the fact that their product is not sustainable with unrelated, irrelevant, or outdated claims.
For example, companies that greenwash often minimise the fact that only a tiny portion of their business model adheres to eco-conscious practices. At the same time, the majority continues to pollute just as badly as ever. Or a company could claim a percentage of the product comes from consumer-recycled content without providing any factual data or details to support their claims.
The term “all-natural,” doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is safe or effective. Mercury, uranium, and arsenic are all-natural, but this doesn’t mean they’re safe to consume.
Assess The Packaging
Plastics, corrugated bubble wrap, and foam peanuts are common packaging materials that often aren’t eco-friendly, whether or not the company advertises ecologically beneficial manufacturing processes.
It’s important to note that even if a company is largely eco-friendly, how they package and ship their products can outweigh the other environmental benefits they advertise.
Is It Too Good to Be True?
If a product’s claims sound too good to be true, they probably are. Trust your instincts to identify these claims, and avoid them whenever possible. If a manufacturer claims their products can cure a disease but provides zero evidence to support their assertions, you should question their advertising.
Similarly, if a business indicates that their products reduce their carbon footprint by 100%, you’ll want to verify the claims before handing over your hard-earned money.