What is 'greenwashing'

November 10, 2018

What is greenwashing?

What is greenwashing?

You may have noticed over the last 10 years, that there has been an explosion of products marketed as 'green' and  'eco'.  This is because many companies have started realising that doing good for the planet is good for business. Unfortunately, they've also figured out that making consumers think they're doing good can be just as beneficial.   

When a company falsely claims that they have taken environmentally friendly actions or that their products, service, activities or policies are environmentally friendly (when they are not) it is known as 'greenwashing'. Greenwashing is a play on the term 'whitewashing', which means to gloss over wrongdoing or dishonesty or exonerate without sufficiently investigating. While greenwashing is not new, its use has increased over recent years to meet consumer demand for environmentally friendly goods and services.

As greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is, it can be used to differentiate a company's products or services from its competitors through these false claims.

According to a 2007 report by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, a large majority of environmental marketing claims are inaccurate, inappropriate, or unsubstantiated. 

The most blatant greenwashers are often large corporations that have had a controversial environmental past, such as chemical, oil and car companies. For example, an energy corporation might tout the fact that it's investing millions of dollars in sustainable sources of energy while concurrently dumping toxins into public waterways.

A more easily identifiable form of greenwashing can be found at your local supermarket. Numerous companies have started using the word 'natural' on their household cleaning and personal care products to entice consumers who are looking for an eco-friendly alternative. 'Natural' may sound healthy and planet-friendly but it means very little since there is no third-party certification required to make that claim.  Also look out for the terms 'environmentally-friendly' and, 'green',  as they are all labels with no legal meaning.

In an economy where people are becoming more concerned about the environment, chances of a company getting away with greenwashing can be high. This can be attributed to the fact that almost all companies and organisations are trying to get that elusive ‘green’ look. If one organisation gets away with greenwashing, other companies may follow suit. This is not only bad for the consumers using the products, but the environment will continue facing degradation from such organisations.

If you bought a product that was widely publicised to be environmentally-friendly only for you to realise that it is not, will you buy a similar product from another vendor or company? The answer is probably no. Greenwashing fuels mistrust and skepticism among consumers. This is not good for the well-meaning organisations who are doing the right thing and upholding responsible behaviour, as these legitimate products will lose the market.

Here are some examples of types of greenwashing;

Hyping what has been taken out of a product:  For example, a shaving cream product claiming it contains no CFCs.  What's interesting is that CFCs were actually banned in 1978. So they are promoting something that would be illegal anyway.

Not providing enough information:  Many plastic items (bottles, drinkware) will use the 'chasing arrows' or 'triangle' symbol. Many people think that the 'chasing arrows' symbol means the plastic can be recycled – and that is untrue. The symbol itself is meaningless.  The only useful information in the 'chasing arrows' symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. ONly some of these can be recycled.

Self-made seals or symbols:  Companies will often put their own stamps on their packages instead of one awarded by a neutral third party.(Think, a single green leaf - which is used often).  These may not actually mean anything, more information is needed to enable the consumer to make an itelligent choice. 

Then there is the recent launch of a popular cola drink with a vibrant green label instead of it's iconic red label.  The new 'green' drink targets health conscious consumers and claims lower calories with much less sugar. This new soft drink is 6.6 percent sugar, compared to the 10.6 percent in the full-sugar version, but,  according to the Cancer Council Australia, this doesn't necessarily make it healthy.  This is an example of how putting a logo on a product, calling it healthier and painting it green can make people think they are making a healthier choice for themselves and for the environment.  

The danger is that health orientated consumers will switch to the green verison and drink more of it than usual, thinking it to be healthy.  This will in fact lead to higher sugar intake than if they hadn't made the change it the first place.

None of the claims for these products are illegal, because there is no legal standard. Until there is, you'll have to decide whether it's worth spending your money on products marketed as green.

Here are some ways you can identify and guard against greenwashing:

1. Examine the claim. Is the product certified by a legitimate third party organisation? Is there an ingredients listing?  Are they claiming that the entire product is green or just some of the ingredients/materials? 

 2. Ask for proof. Is the company willing to provide a copy of the environmental standard or testing protocol? Is the process open, public and transparent? Does it address the product's lifecycle and larger environmental effects?

 3. Check for consistency. If this is an international organisation, are they selling the same products in other countries? If they advertised themselves as 'green', are they still doing what they claim to be doing six months or a year after the ad came out?

 4. Follow the money. What organisations is the company supporting? Who are they donating their money to?

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