What is greenwashing?
Written by Linda Allardyce
Only a few million tonnes of CO2 ago, Greta Thunberg criticised COP26. In November 2021 she said, “This is no longer a climate conference. This is now a global greenwashing festival.” Today, more than ever, it’s critical that we all make the effort to check we’re truly choosing eco-friendly products, rather than taking products at face value.
What does greenwashing mean?
Greenwashing is when businesses promote their products to be more eco-friendly than they truly are. As consumers are becoming more conscious of their shopping habits, businesses are striving to show off their eco-credentials. In some cases they exaggerate and in others, they flat out lie.
Designed to appeal to the eco-conscious consumer, many businesses that practice greenwashing highlight a single sustainable element. For example, a company may promote ‘eco-friendly packaging’ but only part of it is recyclable or they may describe a clothing garment as made from ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ material but it only contains a small percentage of natural ingredients.
The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network recently found that 40% of environmentally friendly claims may be misleading consumers. Why is this such a problem? Because you may buy a product believing you are protecting the planet when you may in fact be doing the opposite. Plus, it can harm your bank balance if you spend more money on an eco-friendly product that isn’t what it says on the tin.
Where did the term greenwashing come from?
Greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher in 1986. He first used the term at a beach resort in Samoa when he noticed that the resort was claiming to help the environment with reusable towels. The resort stressed that the oceans and reefs are an important resource. However at the same time, the resort was expanding further into the local area.
The 7 sins of greenwashing
Good Housekeeping found that 86% of their readers didn’t know what greenwashing meant. The following points are common methods of greenwashing so keep your eyes peeled!
- No proof – a business may claim to be eco-friendly or boast credentials but it doesn’t actually have any third-party certifications or further information
- Too vague – a business may claim to be ‘natural’ or ‘made with recycled materials’ but does not offer any evidence or percentages
- The lesser of two evils – a business may promote one aspect which is eco-friendly such as recyclable packaging but ignore greater environmental harm such as burning fossil fuels
- Irrelevance – a business may relay a fact such as ‘palm oil is destroying forests’ which may well be true, but has no relevance to their brand or product.
- False labelling – some businesses even go as far as to make up eco-credentials.
- Lying – some businesses just lie.
Examples of greenwashing
In 2019, Ryanair claimed that they had “the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline”. It’s no secret that flying is carbon-intense activity and according to the Advertising Standard Authority, Ryanair could provide no legitimate evidence to back up their claims. Ryanair used data from 2011, which held little value in 2019. Plus, it did not include some of the biggest airlines in their comparisons. The advert was banned in 2020.
The 2015 VW scandal was named ‘dieselgate’ when it purposefully installed software in 11 million cars to trick emission tests. This allowed VW to get away with higher emissions vehicles than the law allowed. The $30 billion hit to the business is proof that consumers value honesty and transparency.
In 2018, McDonalds announced that they were getting rid of single-use plastic straws in favour of paper straws. However, it was later discovered that the paper straws could not be recycled which completely defeats the object of choosing eco-friendly material.
How can I tell if a company is greenwashing?
To make eco-friendly choices, consumers must make informed choices and understand what greenwashing is. If businesses are truly being sustainable, they won’t be afraid to be transparent with you. They will have percentages and clear explanations to back themselves up and will want to share them with you. Common misleading imagery is when brands use images of nature such as trees and flowers. This is a tactic used to capture consumer attention and distract them by assuming the product is eco-friendly. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all eco-friendly brands that use green imagery are greenwashing, but you should look for more proof.
Eco-friendly claims should also be clear about what they refer to. For example, if a label claims the product is biodegradable or recyclable, does this mean the product or the packaging? Or perhaps only part of the product?
Eco-friendly credentials to look out for
Leaping bunny – this label means that the product has not been tested on animals. For example, OceanSaver is 100% cruelty-free.
Certified B-corporation – this means that a business meets the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. For example, Stasher Bags are a certified B Corporation.
Carbon Trust – this organisation has many different labels such as ‘CO2 Measured’, ‘Reducing CO2’, ‘Reducing CO2 Packaging’, ‘Carbon Neutral’, ‘Carbon Neutral Packaging’, ‘Lower CO2’ and ‘100% Renewable Electricity’. Their different labels show that their carbon footprint has been certified by experts.
Fairtrade – this means that a product has been made by workers who received a fair wage and decent working conditions.
FSC certified – this means that a product or its packaging uses materials from FSC certified forests. These forests adhere to the highest environmental and social standards. For example, ecoegg products come in FSC certified packaging.
Find out more about what an FSC product is.
Vegan – this means that a product does not contain any animal ingredients. For example, Non Plastic Beach products are vegan.