What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when companies launch marketing campaigns and products that they say are environmentally beneficial in some way—claims that are often in stark contrast to the company’s actual environmental and sustainability record. And it really pisses us off! 

Brands from all industries are often enthused to put out to the world their “green” products, or their latest “environmentally friendly” initiatives. The latest research suggests that around half of UK shoppers are interested in purchasing products based on their impact on the environment, so it’s no surprise that brands want to cater to our environmentally conscious practices. 

These campaigns and products take advantage of consumer interest in eco products, falsely conveying the impression that they are working hard to protect the environment when the truth is very different.

Take the BP’s “Keep Advancing” and “Endless Possibilities” campaigns which suggested the company is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

It’s no surprise that the campaign was faced with backlash, and legal action - and rightfully so. The company only invests 4% of their overall investments in low carbon initiatives and produces around 2.35 million barrels of oil equivalent a day, making it one of the world’s 20 biggest polluters. 

Then there’s the case of Nestlé who said it aimed to make all its plastic packaging recyclable and reusable by 2025 without setting any targets or a timeline stating how it planned to do so. Recycling is hardly enough given how much single-use plastic the company has created over the years. Wouldn’t committing to zero-waste packaging be a more impressive promise? 

And what about Volkswagen? For many years, the company presented their diesel vehicles as a low-emissions alternative to petrol. At the same time, it rigged these diesel engines with software to cheat emissions tests

We couldn’t talk about greenwashing without discussing “biodegradable plastics”. A term that annoys us right to the core. Using the word “biodegradable” leads consumers to believe that this form of plastic packaging will naturally degrade over time. 

This all sounds great, but the reality of this is that biodegradable plastic requires sunlight exposure for this to happen. More often than not, these plastics will end up in the ocean, and will not receive the sunlight it needs to successfully biodegrade.

By tricking us into thinking a company is more environmentally friendly than it is, greenwashing misdirects our energy and distracts us from the real problems. It exploits our genuine desire to protect the environment and sows confusion. Studies on the subject have even confirmed that those who identify as “high environmentalists” could not determine when they were being greenwashed. So, who can we trust? Which sustainable products are actually sustainable? 

So how do you spot greenwashing? Here are our top tips. 

  • Be suspicious of buzzwords such as natural, sustainable, green and eco-friendly.
  • Similarly, peppering advertising and marketing materials with green visuals such as eco-responsible logos, trees, and nature images doesn’t prove anything. 
  • Research whether a company has a hidden parent company—often some large corporation with a less than eco-friendly agenda. 
  • How specific are a company’s claims? How much detail do they provide as to how exactly they create their products and what makes them sustainable? Words like “fair conditions” and “sustainable supply chains” could mean anything.
  • Keep your eye open for conflicting values. How could BP, for example, possibly embrace low carbon initiatives while also being one of the world's biggest oil and gas producers? 
  • Check the ingredients. Beauty products only have to contain 1% organic ingredients to call themselves organic. Look for the COSMOS Organic Certification to be sure. 
  • Don’t settle for ‘goals’. Sustainability missions with dates in the distant future, or even 2030, aren’t good enough at this point. 
  • Explore the brand’s product range. If they’re only selling a handful of ‘eco’ products, they’re clearly jumping on a trend without fully committing to sustainability. 

If you believe a company is guilty of greenwashing, don’t be scared to call them out. Social media is the perfect platform. Just tweet the company in question or comment on their Facebook or Instagram page. 

Request that they clarify aspects of their business. A recent TikTok by Scrapprecycling exposes Carex, and their “eco-friendly” refill pouches for greenwashing. The video, and the subsequent tweets to Carex opened up a dialogue to the company, exposing their hard-to-recycle new packaging.

Ask clothing retailers who made their clothes and where. Ask food producers what they mean by “biodegradable packaging” or “organic ingredients”. Open a dialogue rather than getting angry. Other people will see your post and start asking questions too. 

You can also contact a company privately. This might make them less reactive and defensive. Suggest it as an area of improvement, rather than an accusation. If they don’t respond in a satisfactory way, then you can take it to social media. 

Companies should be scared about being called out by customers. Holding them to account publicly promotes greater awareness about greenwashing. Maybe then we’ll start to see these corporations committing to sustainability in a way that can actually make a difference. 

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