Greenwashing leverages people's noble intent and makes corporations money. Arm yourself with the knowledge to see through their deceptive practices.
It makes people feel good to do their part for the environment. So, when a hotel asks its patrons to reuse their towels to conserve water, many oblige enthusiastically – as they should. However, few people think about how much of the hotel's total waste they should blame on the laundry – or how much money the hotel will save on bills thanks to green-minded visitors.
Corporations See Greenwashing As Easy Money
In the 1980s, an environmentalist named Jay Westerveld thought about these things and wrote an essay calling out the hotel for capitalizing on people's desire to help the planet. He named the practice "greenwashing," and the term stuck. Now, the practice has expanded and plagues nearly every industry.
Greenwashing is a marketing ploy aimed at convincing people that a company is doing everything it can for the environment while, in reality, it has not changed its practices at all. Unfortunately, many companies spend significant time and money maintaining the illusion of environmental altruism. As a result, it is challenging to tell which companies are greenwashing and which are genuine in their claims.
They Prey Upon People's Good Will
The insidiousness of greenwashing lies in that people care. They care so much that two-thirds of consumers will pay a premium for green products and services. It did not take long for businesses to realize they could leverage the popularity of eco-friendly sentiment to increase profits. The regrettable fact is that most people, no matter how noble their intentions, are susceptible to marketing whether it tells the whole story of a product or not.
Greenwashing is ubiquitous, and corporations have every incentive to keep doing it.
We Can Detect Greenwashing In Deeds And Words
Greenwashing is dangerous because it deceives consumers and directs resources away from genuinely sustainable initiatives. Therefore, it is essential to understand the most common types of greenwashing so you can spot them.
You can split most greenwashing practices into two groups: actions and advertising. On the one hand, companies will tout their efforts to increase sustainability even if they made no appreciable difference. On the other, they will produce misleading advertisements to give consumers the impression of eco-friendliness, but no solid proof.
Greenwashing Can Be Meaningless, Half-Baked Actions
Many companies will take purely symbolic action. For example, oil companies have donated millions of dollars worth of dish detergent to help save wildlife after an oil spill. Since they caused the problem, the action is as grotesque as an arsonist becoming a volunteer firefighter.
Equally grotesque is expecting accolades for irrelevant actions that companies must perform by law. For instance, producing a CFC-free spray product is meaningless – CFCs have been illegal in the US since 1978.
In addition, corporate green initiatives often come with hidden tradeoffs. For example, when coffee chains develop straw-free lids to cut down on plastic and the new lids require more plastic anyway. Likewise, some brands have developed slightly less terrible products and prefer to be lauded as the lesser evil. "Fuel-efficient" and "SUV" are still antonyms.
Of course, "fuel-efficient" is not synonymous with "green." Efficiency is excellent, but it never occurs in a vacuum. Getting 60 miles per gallon in a hybrid or 400 in an EV might not be worth the devastation of the mining required to construct their batteries. Large corporations often practice similar types of selective disclosure.
Sometimes, Greenwashing Is Just Deceptive Advertisements
Suggestive imagery goes a long way toward convincing people something is eco-friendly and includes everything from green leaves to small pictures of Earth. But unfortunately, the packaging sometimes shows images that look like certifications accompanied by meaningless labels like "all-natural" or "vegan approved." Other times the labels will appear without the nonsense images. In either case, packaging may make claims with a complete lack of proof – something prevalent on international e-commerce platforms.
Many claims on product labels come without context, specificity, or meaning. For example, buzzwords are often too vague, and "recyclable" on a package could refer to the packaging itself, all, or part of its contents. In addition, phrases like "biodegradable" and "non-toxic" are ridiculous things to have on the packaging of a ream of paper, even if they are true.
Some of the worst greenwashing statements in advertising are the true ones. For example, "now made with 150% MORE recycled material than the leading brand" sounds like a significant improvement. What if the leading brand only uses .5% recycled material? Similar overinflated phrases appear on product labels with alarming frequency.
Ensure Your Money Supports the Right Business
Greenwashing is ubiquitous, and corporations have every incentive to keep doing it. It speaks volumes about people's values that they are willing to support eco-friendly companies with their money. Still, if they don't pay close attention, they might (and frequently do) fall prey to greenwashing and give money to the wrong companies.
However, marketing (genuine and underhanded) always makes a claim. Therefore, if consumers who care about the environment want to make a difference, they must ensure they understand and verify the claims on the products they buy.
Read the Labels – Many legitimate eco-friendly products spell their benefits in plain language. They should provide context, be precise, and (preferably) cite evidence.
Look for Certifications – There are recognized third-party certification labels that are trustworthy. For example, USDA Certified Organic has a clear, publicly available set of standards, resources, and procedures to ensure products with the label are eco-friendly.
Play the Long Game – Become an advocate for regulations that eliminate standard greenwashing practices. Consumers should demand that companies are fully accountable for the claims they make in their marketing.