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.
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.
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.