The number of environmentally conscious consumers voting with their dollars is growing year on year, so going green has never been a more profitable business strategy than it is right now.
Green business practices not only bring in more customers. They also give a favorable public image and can even bring in government support and funding.
This creates a fantastic win-win situation, right? Companies commit to eco-friendly and sustainable business practices that help save the planet. Customers then love them for it and spend loads of money.
More profit for the companies and a cleaner, greener world for many generations to come. What a fantastic eco-utopia we live in!
Well. Actually. NO!
Some companies, quite a lot of companies, in fact, have decided they want all the upside associated with sustainability without, you know, ACTUALLY BEING GREEN AND SUSTAINABLE!
This is called greenwashing (sometimes also called green lies, green sheen, or green marketing).
Greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, is when a company attempts to trick consumers who are looking to live a greener lifestyle into thinking their products are environmentally friendly when they are not.
This deceitful practice is, unfortunately, a lot more common than you probably think.
Read on as I unveil some of the tricks used to pull the green wool over consumers’ eyes to add a few bucks to the bottom line.
Dishonest companies will stop at nothing to take advantage of the growing number of customers keen to spend their money on eco-friendly products.
Here are some of the ways they do it:
This type of greenwashing is when product labels or ad campaigns use nature, animals, leaves, the color green, etc., on their products or services. These images are usually associated with a sustainable message and environmentally friendly products.
When used in a deliberate act of greenwashing, these images give consumers the feeling that the product or service is eco-friendly. The truth is usually very different.
Example: Most bottled water brands have pictures of lush mountains or beautifully crystal clean streams. The reality is that single-use water bottles are a huge contributor to global plastic waste, and an environmental disaster.
Bait and switch greenwashing is when a company offers a limited line of eco-friendly goods or services to attract green-minded customers to engage with their brand (the bait).
Once the customer is ‘on the hook’, they’re presented with a much more extensive range of products that are not eco-friendly (the switch).
Example: A reseller in the timber industry stocks 300 different types of wood products. Only one is FSC certified, but this is one they use in all their advertising campaigns. The customer then shops the entire range of wood products, wrongly assuming they’re all FSC certified.
Greenwashing using irrelevant claims is when companies use eco-friendly sounding claims to make them sound earth-friendly, when in fact, the claim they’re making is totally irrelevant.
Example: A deodorant company proudly states on the can that their entire product range is CFC Free. This is an irrelevant claim because CFCs have been banned, meaning every brand of deodorant is CFC-free by law.
Clickbait is a term used online to describe something that tempts you to click on a link only to find that what you see is not what you were initially promised.
In the world of greenwashing, clickbait is used to describe when a company or individual tries to try to make money from customers with lies. This is often done by labeling products as ‘organic’, ‘recyclable, ‘biodegradable’, ‘certified’, etc., when they simply aren’t.
Some companies even go as far as making up certifications or regulatory bodies.
Example: An energy company supplies natural gas certified as non-toxic by the European Union Gas Board Of Awesome Sustainable Brands. This means absolutely nothing because it’s a made regulatory body.
Zero-proof, or no receipts, greenwashing is a type of clickbait greenwashing (mentioned above). It usually occurs when companies put claims on their labels or in ad campaigns that they can’t prove.
When asked for proof there is always an excuse, usually something to do with ‘competitive sensitivity’ or ‘trade secrets.
Example: A manufacturer of organic cigarettes has self-declared that their product is ‘as safe as breathing mountain air’. You ask them to prove this, and they say they can’t because it would reveal their ‘secret formula’ to competitors.
Red herring greenwashing (also known as hidden trade-offs or lesser of two evils) is when companies make one tiny part of their product eco-friendly and then shout about it endlessly, even though the bulk of the product is potentially terrible for the environment.
Genuine companies will be more than happy to provide more information on things like energy consumption, water pollution, emissions, etc.
Example: A non-rechargeable battery company used packaging containing 5% recycled content. They then claim it’s an eco-friendly battery, but it’s not. The green packaging does not make up for the chemicals the product will potentially leak into the earth when they hit landfill.
Vagueness greenwashing tricks the customer into thinking a product or service is better for the planet than it is by using eco terminology in a vague context.
Phrases commonly used for this type of greenwashing include ‘eco-friendly’, ‘social responsibility’, and ‘all natural’.
Always try to investigate the how when you see vague terms.
Example: If pet food is advertised as ‘all natural’, dig a little deeper and find out exactly how natural it really is.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Green Guides were first issued in 1992 in response to the growing problem of greenwashing. They have since been revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012. You can read the latest update here.
The FTC is a government agency helping protect consumers against unlawful, immoral, and unethical business practices.
There are two things you can do to avoid greenwashing and hold the disreputable companies to account:
There are many steps you can take to help in the fight against greenwashing and identify guilty parties:
If, after going through the steps mentioned above, you discover a product or service has been greenwashed, you should then take action in the following ways:
You now know the different types of greenwashing to look out for, how to identify if a company is greenwashing, and what to do to stop them.
Hopefully, this information will help you avoid greenwashed products in the future.
I would like to finish this article by discussing a few real-world examples of how far companies will go to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they are.
In 2012 the Institute For Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) published a report titled “Walmart’s Greenwash”.
It accused Walmart of making unsubstantiated claims about reducing its carbon footprint by reducing reliance on fossil fuel and moving to more sustainable energy such as natural gas, solar, and wind.
Walmart used these claims in marketing material that saw the overall image of the company dramatically improve, despite only 2% of their energy use coming from wind and solar resources.
The report also highlighted the hypocrisy of these sustainability claims when, according to ILSR, Walmart routinely donates money to political candidates who regularly vote against environmentally friendly projects and sustainable development.
The retail giant responded to the report with a press release saying it was “serious about its commitment to reduce 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015”. I’ve contacted them to confirm whether this commitment was ever met and currently await a satisfactory reply. I’ll update this article if I ever get a definitive answer from them.
Volkswagen ran multiple advertising campaigns stating that diesel was not a bad fuel source and their diesel internal combustion engine vehicles were not contributing to climate change because they used a technology that emitted low levels of air pollution and carbon dioxide.
In 2015 it was revealed that Volkswagen had fitted around 11 million of its diesel cars with ‘defeat devices’, designed to cheat emissions tests. Investigators later found that some of these vehicles that have previously passed all tests emitted pollutants up to 40 times the U.S. limit.
In April 2017, a US federal judge ordered Volkswagen to pay a criminal fine of $2.8 billion for cheating emissions tests and deceptive advertising. However, this classic greenwashing scandal has ended up costing Volkswagen over 30 billion euros.
In an ad during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in 2016, ExxonMobil greenwashed their emissions by claiming they were “mapping the oceans”, “turning algae into biofuel”, and “defeating malaria”.
In actual fact, the harmful effects of ExxonMobil emissions had been increasing for many years.
SC Johnson claimed it had developed the world’s first window-cleaner bottle made from 100% recycled ocean plastic.
This claim suggested that the plastic was retrieved from the ocean. This was not the case. It was sourced from plastic banks in Haiti, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The plastic used might have eventually found its way into the ocean, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call it ‘Ocean Plastic’.
Frito Lay is a significant player in the snack industry. They also know a thing or two about greenwashing.
They renamed their main potato chips brand from Classic Lays Potato Chips to Natural Lay’s Potato Chips to sound more natural and, by association, more healthy.
They also opted for a more earth-toned package to emphasize the environmentally-friendly message.
However, on closer inspection of the labels, the only difference between the Natural and Classic versions is the thickness of the chips and a slight variation of the oil and salt. There is zero difference in the grams of fat or the number of calories.
So, it’s just the same unhealthy product greenwashed to trick the consumer into thinking it’s healthier.
In 2018, Starbucks wanted to green up the company’s image, so they banned all single-use plastic straws and launched a straw-less lid.
Sounds great, right? Well, it should have been, except for the fact that the new lid contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combined.
This Guardian article sums it all up rather nicely.
Paseo, made by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), launched a range of tissues for children. To appeal to their target audience, the tissue box had outlines of forest animals such as elephants, orangutans, and tigers for children to color in.
APP boasted that the tissues were made from 100% sustainably sourced, plantation-grown acacia virgin fiber.
Sounds great! Although, maybe not so great when you research and discover that APP has faced numerous allegations of clearing and burning animal habitats in Indonesia. An endangered Sumatran tiger was also found dead in a trap on APP’s land.
Ikea marketed its Buy Back initiative as a way to combat the excess and waste that occur around Black Friday.
Customers in 27 countries were permitted to sell unwanted fully assembled drawer units, tables, chairs, cabinets, desks, shelving, and cupboards back to IKEA in return for vouchers.
On the surface, this sounds like a great way to reduce unwanted impulse purchases going to landfill.
Not everyone was convinced. An article in Euronews questioned whether the scheme was an attempt at greenwashing because they had made misleading green claims in the past (such as being linked with illegal logging in Ukraine.
Vegan Leather is a material where greenwashing is rife.
The marketing departments of vegan leather manufacturers will go to great lengths to sing about how their product will reduce emissions (due to no cows being raised and slaughtered) and also result in a lower purchase price.
They conveniently (for them!) fail to address the negative impact on the environment of the plastics used in many vegan leather products.
As Harpers Bazaar points out, the answer is not black and white. Some vegan leathers are plant-based and very green, but many aren’t. However, if you believed the greenwashing hype machine, you would be forgiven for thinking that all vegan leather products are better for the environment than animal-based leather products.
Greenwashing has been around for decades but has escalated alarmingly in past years due to the growing consumer demand for green products.
Hopefully, this article has given you a good idea of what to look out for and what to do when you feel someone is trying to trick you into buying a product you think is good for the environment, but actually isn’t.
There is a simple answer to the greenwashing problem. YOU! If we all hold companies accountable by refusing to buy any of their products if they practice greenwashing, it will eventually come to an end.