What is Greenwashing?
June 12, 2019 • 3 min read
What is “greenwashing”? You might have heard this term being thrown around on social media, as the discussions around climate change, conscious living, and sustainability are on the rise. But we do we know what this term actually means, and why it’s so important to understand it and be on the lookout for it?
In a nutshell, greenwashing is when a brand or company conveys a false impression that they or their product are more environmentally sound than they really are. A play on the term “whitewashing” this term means using misleading information to gloss over bad behaviour.
This can apply to any industry, and brands “greenwash” us when they want to capitalize on the growing demand for products that are environmentally-friendly. They aren’t actually putting in the time, effort and changes required to make their process or products good for the earth, but they cleverly market their branding to make it seem as though they are, so that they can profit from the trend. And trust us, this trend is VERY profitable. A 2015 Nielsen survey showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products, and with millennials, that number jumps to 72%. This is a huge profit margin that mainstream brands would be losing out on if they abstained from the trend.
Examples of areas in which a brand might greenwash consumers is by claiming that their food or supplements are more natural than they actually are (“natural” is an ambiguous term that doesn’t really mean a whole lot and can make it seem like a product is greener than it is). They might try to convince us that their products are free of harsh chemicals, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, made from plants, or ethical.
Clever marketing and the use of umbrella terms (like sustainable, natural, and compostable) is on the rise, and the unknowing consumer might be duped into choosing one product over another, because of these vague labels that trick us into thinking we’re making a better choice.
Greenwashing extends to every industry, with brands in skincare, beauty, fashion, home goods, wellness and even travel, jumping on the green train.
This term has actually been around since the 60s, and is gaining momentum. The term originated when the hotel industry tried to convince guests that they were being more sustainable than they actually were, by placing notes in guest’s rooms asking them to reuse their towels to save the environment. This was purely done out of self-interest, as the hotel benefited from lower laundry costs.
As the urgency to protect the earth becomes more apparent, consumers are demanding more healthy, natural, recyclable, chemical-free, and ethical options. To appear earth-conscious, socially good, and caring, corporations and brands are offering up greener versions of their notoriously infamous mainstream options. This practice is not only selfish and unhelpful, it muddies the green waters and makes it immensely harder for the average consumer to know if they are actually buying something genuinely good.
So how can the average consumer who doesn’t have time to conduct official inquiries into each brand know whether they are supporting a company that is legitimate or that is simply being opportunistic?
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1. Check out their websites for information.
A genuinely green brand will have tons of information on their website about their efforts and processes, as they are proud to do the work that they do. They will be open about their process, most likely have a personal and heartfelt story regarding how they started and why they are doing what they do, as well as pictures of their workers, their manufacturing, and their supply chain. The information will be abundant and easy to find. A non-green brand won’t have transparency or much information available, which is a big red flag.
2. Ask questions!
If something seems too good to be true (“ethical” jeans for $20?) DM the brand on Instagram/social media, or email them and ask for more information. If they ghost you, get defensive or give vague answers about their products, consider that a red flag. Once again, a genuinely sustainable brand will be happy to share information with you, and will be happy that you’re asking questions to inform yourself.
3. Be wary of the brand’s history
If the brand is notoriously well-known for their poor ethics, use of plastic and manufacturing processes, and all of a sudden they are offering you green products (think F21, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Starbucks etc), don’t immediately buy into it. These brands are mostly all trying to capitalize on the green trend, so be wary of the fact that they went from unethical to caring overnight. Also, think beyond products. Brands like H&M offer seemingly green solutions (like their in-store donation bins), which far from covers the damage they are doing by manufacturing their cheap clothing. Ask questions!
As we demand more transparency in the products we buy, it is only to be expected that the bottom-feeders will hungrily attempt to join in and have their share of the eco-pie. We as consumers have never been savvier, so know your terminology and how to smell a greenwasher from the get go, and most importantly, don’t get fooled into believing what you see on labels. Dig around a bit more and do some research before deciding if a brand is clean or not.
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