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15 Oct What is greenwashing?


You’ve heard of whitewashing – the act of covering up one thing through the pursuit and promotion of another. Well, greenwashing is a similar concept. It’s the process of businesses ‘bigging themselves up’, in terms of their green credentials and eco-friendly persona, in a way that far supersedes their actual truth. The purpose? It no doubt varies, but for some, it’s certainly to cover up the truth about their actual standing in environmental terms.

What is greenwashing? – the definition

Investopedia explains greenwashing as:

“…the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly.”

Understanding greenwashing is important when it comes to considering ethics, transparency and making consumer choices.

So why would businesses greenwash? Because they know that being green sells.

A new phenomenon for a new generation

Greenwashing as a term is only just about coming into common parlance despite being in existence since 1986. That’s because green is going mainstream – more and more consumers shop based on their principles of environmentalism. Businesses are catching onto that fact and so to secure their customer base, they are speaking to these customers in terms of what they want to hear.

What does greenwashing look like in practice?

In practice, greenwashing is pretty sinister. Businesses may in fact spend more on marketing and conveying the message that they are eco-friendly than on actually taking steps to reduce their environmental impact. At best it’s nothing more than yet another marketing gimmick. But for consumers who really care about being green, not just appearing green, it’s problematic.

Not all companies involved in greenwashing make the headlines, but some do. A very famous example is Chevron, with their ‘The People Do’ campaign which they ran whilst simultaneously violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and being responsible for wildlife harming oil spills.

But, Chevron isn’t the only one. And the real issue lies in consumers being able to determine themselves if a company is guilty of greenwashing.

Greenwashing is bad for brands

In many ways, greenwashing can be seen as the shortcut that goes wrong for businesses. It doesn’t pay to cut the corners. 

Being identified as having undertaken greenwashing is bad news for a brand’s reputation and costly. For example, Walmart had to shell out $1 million for falsely labelling bottles as environmentally friendly and the publicity did their brand no favours. They were quickly identified as unethical, unconcerned about the environment and dishonest.

Avoiding greenwashing

The thing is, sometimes it’s not as obvious as a blatant lie, once the facts are checked. Greenwashing can also be a lot more subtle. For example, using literally green and brown coloured packaging, or including images from nature, can give the impression that something is made following green principles when it’s not.

In fact, it’s probably fair to say, especially now in 2020, rather than back in 1986 when the phrase was first coined, that in most cases it’s not an intentional act of deception. Businesses, and certainly their marketers, are enthusiastic about green credentials because they know it sells and they know it’s profitable. Research shows that 66% of consumers will pay more for a product if they know it comes from a sustainable brand.

So as a consumer, how can you make sure that you’re not falling for the greenwashing trick?

  • Trust your own intuition and intelligence: If you’re questioning if a claim is ‘too good to be true’, or something that goes against your knowledge, then steer clear or investigate further. Don’t simply fall for the marketing spin of images of mountain streams and toucans in rainforests.
  • Research: Do your homework on particular products and their manufacturer. With the internet at your fingertips, it’s easier to find out more. Dig deeper than the initial claim. For example, a green product like an energy efficient lightbulb may have been made using a process that pollutes the local ecosystem.
  • Be selective: Get to know individual retailers that you can trust. For example, if you choose Wearth, you know that we hold the same stringent green values that you do and only stock products that we’ve done our homework on.
  • Question: If there’s something that strikes you as odd, question it. If you don’t recognise the jargon, ask yourself what it actually means. You should be able to find reliable facts with evidence, backed up by data.

Seek out legitimacy

Don’t let the existence of greenwashing make you doubt green marketing. For those of us who do care about making green consumer choices, we need to be able to look at green marketing with a reasonably trusting mind. 

Green marketing differs from greenwashing in that products are sold using legitimate and authentic environmental facts which are transparent. You can easily and readily check them for yourself.

There are a number of identifiers of green marketing, rather than greenwashing:

  • Packaging: There genuinely is less packaging, and no plastics.
  • Sustainable credentials: They can list and display vigorous sustainable credentials from reputable bodies.
  • Materials: They use recycled or renewable materials e.g. fast-growing bamboo.
  • Longevity: They are designed to last, be reused, or recycled.

Holding up your hands

The reality is that environmentally responsible products are harder to make, and often more costly. The temptation for businesses to greenwash is high. However, some companies have shown there is a balance. For example, Patagonia’s website puts up its hands and says: “Everything we make has an impact on the planet.” It’s honest. And they go on to explain how they recognise the responsibility this brings and what they are doing about it. 

So now you know what greenwashing is, it’s time to take a savvier approach to the businesses you buy from. Dig below the marketing message and ask yourself if they genuinely satisfy your eco-friendly standards, or if they just want you to think they do.