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What You Need To Know About Greenwashing

Written by Jennifer Nini

You’re going meatless on Mondays, you’re composting your food craps and you’ve also started a veggie garden. You’re feeling really good about the steps you’ve taken to reduce your environmental impact when there’s a plot twist.

It’s called greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

This is a term that refers to the method of promoting environmentally friendly practices to divert attention away from an organisations less-savoury and environmentally unfriendly activities.

As the green trend is on the rise, there are a number of companies scrambling to offer products to meet the growing demand. Unfortunately, many of these companies are making all sorts of green claims misleading consumers into thinking that its products are more eco-friendly than they actually are.

On several occasions I have been close to being a victim of greenwashing myself. I actually covered this subject in a recent interview I did with Fashion Industry Broadcast. Because I write a blog on sustainable lifestyle and ethical fashion I’ve also become a prime target for greenwashing. I’ve had several businesses send me press releases outlining the ‘eco-friendly’ traits of their businesses only to discover (through persistent questioning) the following information:

  • while the business uses eco-friendly fabrics, the fabrics may not be certified organic or the sources accounted for;
  • an ‘ethical’ brand doesn’t necessarily use eco-friendly materials;
  • fairtrade doesn’t mean anything without proof; you need to demand fairtrade certification or other third party certification  as evidence;
  • ‘vegan’ fashion and products aren’t necessarily eco-friendly even if touted ‘ethical’ if it uses petroleum-based synthetics such as ‘PU’ leather and other synthetic-based ‘vegan’ leather alternatives; and
  • just because a business uses eco-friendly materials, doesn’t mean that the materials are ethically sourced or ethically produced.

7 sins of greenwashing

So to protect yourself from being greenwashed by organisations, watch out for these ‘7 Sins of Greenwashing’:

1. Hidden trade off: Many businesses label  a product as environmentally-friendly based on a small set of attributes when other attributes aren’t addressed that actually have a bigger impact on the eco-friendliness of the product. For example, an item may be made of from a ‘sustainably harvested forest’ but energy usage, water usage and gas emissions aren’t addressed. The same can be said for brands such as H&Ms ‘Concious Collection’ that provide consumers with clothes made from eco-friendler materials without addressing the more important issue of relying on a ‘fast fashion’ and planned obsolescence model that is inherently unsustainable.

2. No evidence: Some businesses may make environmental claims without providing accessible proof on either the label or the product. For example,  an organisation may claim that their product is hypoallergenic but there is no factual evidence on the label or website to support this.

3. Being vague – There are many businesses across a range of different industries that use terms that are too broad that can be misunderstood. One example is the use of the words ‘natural.’ The word natural is poorly defined and implies that the product is made from botanical sources, but at times, can actually include harmful chemicals that are naturally occuring such as arsenic, uranium, mercury and formaldehyde.

4. Irrelevance – Some businesses will tout an eco-friendly trait that is technically true when in fact, in the grand scheme of things, is in itself not a distinguishing factor when looking for eco-friendly products. An example of this is the labelling of CFC-free when in fact CFCs have been legally banned for the last three decades.

5. Lesser of two evils – Claiming to be greener than other products in its category when the category as a whole may be environmentally unfriendly. An example of this is e-cigarettes. It may still be a more eco-friendly option, but it’s still a cigarette. Is its production really necessary?

6. Lying – There are some businesses who will just lie outright in order to make a profit. They will advertise something that just isn’t true. They will make a claim on being organic or chemical-free or whatever it is that they think you want to hear.

7. Fake Labels: Some organisations will imply that a product has a third-party endorsement or certification that doesn’t actually exist, often through the use of fake certification labels.

So what can you do to avoid being greenwashed?

  • Do your research prior to shopping and always ask questions of the brand/organisation if you’re unsure
  • Be on the look out for these 7 sins
  • Discuss with your household, family and friends to ensure no greenwashed products end up in your home
  • Familiarise yourself with standards, certifying bodies and eco certification labels
  • Shop with businesses who are transparent and committed to honest advertising

These tips aren’t necessarily foolproof, but by following them, you’ll be able to prevent yourself from being duped most of the time.

Source: 

http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/

Now over to you: have you been a victim of greenwashing? What were the circumstances? Do you have any tips that will help people avoid being greenwashed? Please feel free to leave a comment. Your experiences will help facilitate learning and assist others in their green journey.

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

13 Comments

  • Great topic to discuss, Jennifer! I’d like to tackle this one sometime, too 🙂

    For me, in terms of clothing, I always try to go with my gut. Generally, if a brand is smaller and I can interact with someone who is heavily involved and feels strongly about their story, I feel good about them. It’s pretty easy to tell if something is the real deal or not once you’ve actually talked to someone from the brand! Do they use gimmicky marketing words (ugh “natural” and “eco” are the worst!) or do they actually tell you the entire story of the product/brand inspiration?

    When it comes to food, I like to do my research and find out who the parent company is. I was shocked when I learned about Annie’s and Back to Nature…and more. Unfortunately, like in the case of Annie’s, some companies start out as sustainable and then are forced to sell to a larger company that doesn’t truly care about sustainability. That really makes me upset with capitalism!

    Are there any specific brands that irk you when it comes to greenwashing?

    • Hey lovely, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I find that if I ask questions and the brand isn’t forthcoming about the information, I become suspicious. I’m not familiar with Annie’s and Back to Nature but here in Australia there is a green brand called Macro Wholefood Market that was bought out by the Woolworths empire. I stopped shopping from the big supermarkets this year because I don’t like businesses monopolising industry and their philosophy of ‘fresh food’ is extremely questionable.

      H&M is a brand that I’ve spoken out about before because of the reliance on the ‘fast fashion’ and planned (or perceived) obsolescence model. ASOS is another brand that I would put in that category even though I do like some of the offering in their ‘Green Room’ the model they rely on is inherently unsustainable and so I can’t take them seriously. I prefer independent brands that produce garments in small batches and are honest and transparent in their advertising and in their relationships with customers.

  • Thanks for sharing how you make sure you aren’t being duped. It’s so frustrating to think there are companies out there that say they’re eco-friendly, but they’re not. I find that doing extra research, as you suggested, helps because you can learn more about their certifications and see how transparent they are based on what they share about the manufacturing their products. If a company is vague about this process, I am hesitant to trust them.

    • I’m the same – I ask a lot of questions and if an organisation isn’t forthcoming, I get really suspicious. Let’s face it, there is no such thing as 100% sustainable fashion because we rely on non-renewable energy for farming, production, shipping, transporting and advertising. So if a business is up front such as advising that their fabrics aren’t CERTIFIED organic but they are striving to go that way and they are focussed at this point on ethical production and sourcing, that’s okay. If businesses are transitioning slowly towards more sustainable practices I don’t think it’s fair we should blast them as they are TRYING- so long as they are honest in their marketing.

  • Great post. I completely agree with you about H&M and ASOS. It irks me when I see ‘eco’ bloggers accepting the greenwash. I read one post which used the fact that H&M is the world’s biggest buyer of organic cotton as one justification for supporting the brand. Organic cotton is still a water and energy intensive crop with a significant environmental cost. Making poor quality organic top is still harmful- just slightly less. The same goes for suggesting that a job H&M’s supply chain is better than no job at all. But no job is not the counterfactual- the counterfactual is a job in an ethical supply chain! When consumers buy 1 fairtrade t-shirt instead of 5 fast fashion ones, the worker gets a fair wage, isn’t forced to work overtime, and doesn’t need to send thier children to work to supplement thier income.
    Greenwashing and ethical washing drive me mad!

    • Hi Summer,
      Another fashion blogger left a comment on my site that has stuck with me. When it comes to H&M Conscious Collection, the blogger, Christine of Madame Ostrich, stated, “I’m always baffled by people who buy into the whole idea of H&M’s “organic” collection. Sure, your cotton may be grown without pesticides–but does it really matter if you have children sewing your clothes for 16 hours a day with no air conditioning?” It’s stayed with me when I’m considering brands and looking into who is being truthful about their practices. Your comment made me think of it again and I couldn’t agree with you more about a company’s labor practices.

      • Thanks for sharing Brooke. Your friend has some very good points too. It is so important to keep questioning the marketing messages of companies, otherwise we start to believe that fast fashion can be ethical and coal can be clean.

      • I just had to reply to you too Brooke even though your comment was to Summer. What a fantastic point Christine made. This why it is so important to push past labels and company marketing and get more information. Then again, when you point these out, you have people say “well at least they have a job” etc etc and then it gets very frustrating indeed.

        • Hi Jennifer. The comment, “Well, at least they have a job,” drives me crazy. How about they have a job that provides them with respect, confidence and worth? I can’t stand thinking my purchases go to the mistreatment of workers.

    • Totally agree with you on H&M. I’ve read blogs/articles with similar sentiments and wonder: What the? Humans are interesting creatures. We find justifications so that we don’t have to do the hard work of making a real change in our own lives. For some it all seems too hard. For others, they don’t want to rock the boat too much so as not ostracise other people. These topics (and subsequent discussions) are important though. It stimulates critical thinking and promotes ideas that challenge the status quo. Great we’re on the same page Summer!

  • You mentioned Fair Trade credentials and fairtrade certification as proof. Our company was, in fact, Fair Trade certified at one time but we didn’t stay long once we came to understand the ethics of the certification organisation. The certification is popular with retailers and wholesalers as sales leverage, but there is very little voice down at the artisan level. We got out real quick.

    • Great point. I was in two minds when we went through the organic certification process with the farm and as a family decided to proceed as we realise customers prefer it. Do you use any third-party auditors to help substantiate claims?

      • Organic certification has become big business these days. The basic principle is good. However, for these third party certification companies, the more they certify, the more money they make. To widen the net, standards are dropped.

        As mentioned above, we were Fair Trade Certified and audited by a third-party. I started to lose faith with the audit which was focussed on things I thought were not important. For example, we were training intellectually disabled in some income genertion areas and all the ausitor was interested in was minutes of meetings for the audit and not the training outcomes (ie. were they generating income and was it sustainable).

        For our cosmetics products, I have looked at third-party auditors fairly closely, and have not been impressed. As a scientist, I look at these technical things perhaps a bit differently, not just the commercialisation.

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