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.
An example of how a brand might greenwash consumers is by claiming that their leggings are “planet-friendly” because they use “natural” materials (“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), when in truth, when you take a look at their material breakdown, it shows a blend of cotton, polyester and spandex. Many brands try to convince us that their products are free of harsh chemicals, recyclable, compostable or biodegradable, made from plants, or ethical, when they might only be partly so, or not at all.
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 many brands in skincare, beauty, fashion, home goods, wellness, health, 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, traceable, transparent, regenerative, 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 based in pure self-interest, 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, 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. Transparency is key here – a non-sustainable brand won’t have much information available, which is a big red flag. Also, check for green and sustainable certifications, awards, accolades, and organizations they’re part of to get a better sense of where they stand. While not every truly sustainable brand will have these, it’s another marker of their authenticity, and a way for the average consumer to get a better sense of the brand’s standing.
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. When it comes to sustainability, some things to look out for include prices (as we mentioned above, it’s next to impossible for an ethically-made product to be on par with fast fashion prices), materials (if a brand claims they’re sustainable yet have products that are made with known earth-harming materials or ingredients, think twice), processes (if a brand is sustainable but their products are made in countries or areas that are notorious for poor labour laws, ask questions). 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 sustainable 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.
4. Beware of Buzzwords
Though we touched on this above, it is vital for a consumer to beware of trendy buzzwords when discerning the authenticity of a brand. For example, “biodegradable” and “compostable” are not the same thing, but we’re often greenwashed into thinking a brand is doing better than average if they offer a biodegradable solution. In reality, “biodegradable” just means that a material has the ability to degrade into tiny pieces, so even certain types of plastic are biodegradable, but this doesn’t mean actually earth-friendly (it’s actually worse, as it breaks down into micro-plastics, which are then impossible to recapture out of our environment and ecosystems).
Even “compostable” is often problematic, as PLA or corn derived bioplastics can only be composted in a commercial facility. A consumer might be excited thinking that a brand they love has made a better choice, but in reality, a corn bioplastic has the exact same effect as regular plastic if not properly broken down. Look for “home compostable” instead, and make sure the brand has a specific timeline of how long an item takes to return safely back into the earth.
4. Think Beyond “Green”
Remember, sustainability isn’t just about plastic and waste. Sustainability encompasses ethics, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivity, so ensuring you’re checking for these claims on a brand’s website is just as important. Make sure the brand isn’t encroaching on the rights of a marginalized group, that they’re amplifying, uplifting and crediting in the right way, that their designs are original and not stolen from a small artist, that they are size and body inclusive, that they’re giving back and paying their workers living wages. While it can be difficult for a company to check off everything, you’ll be able to get a sense of the brand’s true authenticity and impact if they have at least some of these values built into their ethos.
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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