Greenwashing is a deceptive practice in which companies make false or exaggerated claims about their environmental practices and impacts. It involves making unsubstantiated claims in order to deceive consumers into believing a company is environmentally friendly or has great impacts when it doesn’t. In fact, some companies actively hide their damaging practices behind positive PR campaigns. Essentially companies spend more time marketing themselves as being sustainable rather than actually spending time and resources minimizing their negative impacts. As concern about climate change and the subsequent looming disaster rise, companies feel more pressure to craft a positive public image. Here’s how to spot the lies and stop falling for them.
Why companies engage in greenwashing
Capitalize on growing environmental consciousness and demand
More people are concerned about the ethics of the way their products are sourced and made including things like is the company wasteful in its use of resources, what impact are they having on the environment and more. This increased consciousness is accompanied by a demand for environmentally sound products and companies always on the lookout to increase their profits are aware of this. People are willing to spend more on products that have a minimal negative impact on the environment and nature in general. One study found that consumers would spend more on a product if it came from a sustainable brand.
The lies and how to spot them
Greenwashing comes in many ways with some of the most common ways being renaming, rebranding, and repackaging products with messaging about how environmentally friendly the products are. Here are some things to look out for:
If the label or official statement is vague with undefined terms like ‘all natural’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘free of toxins’, or ‘green’ without a clear definition of what it means tread with caution. If it doesn’t have third-party certification verifying its claims, it’s probably deception. Some make claims that are impossible to prove, for example, conflict-free smartphones, implying that they used minerals that were not sourced from conflict zones. Walmart was forced to settle a court case for deliberately misleading their customers by touting their products as eco-friendly.
A company heavily promotes the single beneficial attribute of their product while hiding the rest of its many negative impacts. A fuel company can for example make announcements about how they are using solar to power their offices while still engaging in the fossil fuel industry which is one of the biggest polluters. Listen to what they are not saying as they make claims about the green improvements to their products.
Greenwashing by association
You’ve seen those symbols and green packaging designed to give the impression that the product is environmentally friendly. The symbols are liberally used even on products that are not recyclable and are far from environmentally friendly. The recycling symbol has been so overused in deceptive ways, it’s come to mean nothing.
Companies do not shy away from outright lies. They claim their products are biodegradable when they know it’s false. Clothing companies lie about using sustainable materials when they don’t. One huge soft drinks corporation was caught lying that its water was sourced from pure, natural sources such as streams when they were bottling tap water.
Greenwashing matters because these lies hold us back from making the changes we need to create sustainable products and ways of living. They also keep people from focusing on the key problems, if a soft drinks company which is one of the major polluters makes it look like their products are biodegradable, people stop thinking about the effects of plastic and ways to minimize usage because the problem is solved. If a fossil fuel company makes it look like adding solar power to their energy use is a step in the right direction, it distracts people from the fact that fossil fuels in totality are the problem. We’re trying to solve an existential problem threatening life on earth and they are tricking us with sideshows. Greenwashing can’t just be excused as clever marketing and PR.
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