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Greenwashing: How to Spot it

Updated: Feb 8


How to spot greenwashing

These days, it seems like every other product in the grocery store is labeled “all-natural” or “sustainable” in big letters, while much smaller ones reveal that no environmentally conscious efforts are actually taking place. While many companies have successfully implemented sustainability into their business practices, others are simply greenwashing (or “green” marketing). Greenwashing is “... a form of misinformation often used to entice an aspiring green consumer. Companies promising to be sustainable, biodegradable, or environmentally conscious sometimes fail to meet the promises they make to consumers” [1]. In other words, greenwashing targets customers who want to make environmentally friendly shopping choices with false advertising on product labels. In this article, we will dive into what to look out for, how to know when greenwashing is taking place, and what to do about it.


What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the practice of implying through advertisement and/or product labels that a product is environmentally friendly when in actuality, the company producing it is making no effort to deliver on such promises [2]. This is often done for strategic purposes since consumers will typically pay more for a product if there is an impression that it is good for the environment or good for your health (ex., natural or sustainable) since environmentally or sustainably made materials tend to cost more due to their quality.


Here are a few reasons why businesses practice greenwashing:

  • To fit into mainstream culture by hopping on the environmental “trend” to stay relevant

  • To connect with consumers’ values—everyone loves a “guilt-free” product

  • Tapping into consumers’ fears and values

  • For competitive comparison, socially responsible (either real or portraying themselves to be) vs. those that are not [3].


That being said, I do want to stress that greenwashing is not always intentional; some companies are unaware that this is what they are doing. Sometimes, greenwashing is an accidental design or aesthetic choice, but it is nonetheless beneficial for consumers to know the difference between companies and products that are environmentally friendly vs. companies and products that are not so that we can support and encourage the rise of more authentically sustainable practices while shedding light on those misleading so they can (hopefully) correct their ways.


Problems with Greenwashing

Greenwashing is manipulative and deceitful, if intentional. These lies often lead to misconceptions about recycling and environmental practices, altering consumers’ views on the facts revolving around our environment. For example, in DW Planet A’s video [4] (below) they explain how difficult it is to recycle plastic from the world’s oceans—the hard work starts as early as actively harvesting said plastic from the sea. Typically, not very much recycled marine plastic is in a product since it is challenging to do and it is also a very expensive process (which adds to the end cost of the product).



Many of the sneaky tactics of greenwashing (such as stating that a product is free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) when the product would not logically contain GMOs in the first place, making the claim technically factual but overall irrelevant) can fit into a loophole or be vague enough to go undetected in the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) “Green Guides” regulations and make it difficult to penalize any potential violations [5].


In 1992, the “FTC Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, commonly known as the ‘Green Guides…’” were enacted, later revised in 1996, 1998, and 2012. These “Green Guides are the main regulatory mechanisms controlling greenwashing” [6]. There are a few other systems put into place such as the Lanham Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act, state laws, and self-regulation, all of which work to prevent greenwashing, in theory; however, regulations for “green” marketing are sadly under enforced and outdated. In the case of the Green Guides, cases against companies greenwashing are rarely made and even more rarely put into action.


You can find more information on the Green Guides here:


Typical “Green” Terminology

There are many enticing terms such as “produced sustainably,” “natural,” and “green” that make a product sound credible and environmentally friendly; however, these are more often than not just vague jargon, and since there is no true definition of what they mean, a lot of products can fall under these categories. More examples include but are not to, “no artificial ingredients,” “100% natural,” “eco,” “eco-friendly,” [7] etc.


Two common product labels are “chemical-free” and “clean beauty.” The “chemical-free” label is inherently flawed since chemicals are everywhere; we are made up of chemicals, water is made up of chemicals, and the stars and planets are all chemicals. Therefore, there is no such thing as “chemical-free.” The next term, “clean beauty,” is too vague. “Clean” is a broad term that can make other products seem “dirty” comparatively, when in fact there is no such thing as a clean product when left undefined by the label [8].


Examples of Greenwashing

Examples of greenwashing & green marketing

Since there are unfortunately many examples of companies, organizations, and products that utilize greenwashing in their marketing, I cannot point all of them out; however, a couple of bigger companies have gotten substantial backlash in the past about engaging in greenwashing due to their known contributions to pollution and/or large carbon footprints, such as Coca-Cola [9] and Ryanair (Transport & Environment, 2020). Fiji, among many other bottled water companies, tends to use nature imagery to make their plastic water bottles seem more environmentally conscious when plastic water bottles are a huge pollutant [10].


Fast fashion brands typically utilize greenwashing as well, which tends to contradict their bafflingly inexpensive clothes—typically clothes made sustainably and ethically lean towards a slightly higher price range (like Patagonia, for example—they have many certifications, and their products can be quite pricey due to their environmentally conscious practices). This video by DW Planet A [11] discusses “green” marketing in fast fashion and how certain brands use misleading claims regarding the materials of clothing and recycling tags, the production process, and pollution (they also mention microplastics—if you want to know more about, check out our blog on microplastics).




Well-Known Certifications and What They Mean

Well-known environmentally friendly certifications
  • The bunny certifications (there are a few different ones that are well-known such as Choose Cruelty-Free, Leaping Bunny, and PETA): products were not tested on animals

  • Climate Neutral [12]: products, companies, and/or organizations have low carbon emissions

  • Fair Trade [13]: products, companies, and/or organizations follow the standards (economic, environmental, and social) that Fair Trade upholds.

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) [14]: sustainable clothing (organic fibers, social and environmental standards, etc.)

  • Green seal [15]: products, companies, and/or organizations meet the standard for sustainability, health, and the performance of each product

  • USDA organic [16]: organic farms or businesses


There are many not-so-credible certifications, so it is important to check the credentials that products, companies, and organizations put forward in their branding. Side note: Outside of these certifications listed, there are many companies and organizations that have not gone through the process of getting well-known certifications but still have environmentally friendly products or uphold sustainable business practices. This is often due to being a new or small company/organization or as a result of cost barriers or other accessibility issues. It is important to check the validity of certifications if there are any. Trustworthy organizations can easily back their facts (in a straightforward and clear way) and are transparent unlike those that are simply using “green” marketing. The key is in the proof.

What do you look for in a sustainable business?

  • They give back to environment

  • They offer reusable products

  • They offer plastic-free packing and shipping

  • They openly offer transparency in product descriptions


What We Can Do As Consumers?

Due to the lack of restrictions for “green” marketing, it can be tough to avoid. However, there are many tell-tale signs of when a product is greenwashing (listed below), so by learning those tricks, being curious, asking questions, and using your instincts to sort out which brands and products you trust, keeping clear of greenwashing is doable.


How to spot greenwashed products? 5 Tips!

  1. Be cautious of unofficial certifications to support “natural” or “organic” claims

  2. Be on the lookout for misleading claims, unsubstantiated facts, or factually incorrect statements

  3. Look out for misleading natural imagery (i.e., Fiji water)

  4. Notice any lack of transparency (brands, companies, and/or organizations that can back their claims will most likely easily do so on their website)

  5. Take note of vague terms or overuse of “green” vocabulary

[17] [18]


What Can Be Done As a Business?


4 ways businesses/brands can show environmental friendliness without being certified:

  1. By using sustainable materials in products and packaging - look for biodegradable, recyclable, and renewable resources

  2. Being transparent in all aspects of the business - honesty is always the best policy, if this is not possible—it's time to rethink that area of the business

  3. Leveraging third-party certifications with values that align

  4. Partner with environmentally cautious organizations - this can be a nonprofit or another environmentally cautious business


Parting Thoughts

Just because something sounds like it is environmentally friendly or seems to support sustainability, that is not always the case. Some companies may not even know they are greenwashing, so look for product and brand transparency, be curious, and make decisions that feel good to you.


Follow us on Instagram where we post daily for tips, education, and products that encourage an environmentally friendly lifestyle.


 

References:

[1] Gibbens, S. (2022, November 22). Is your favorite 'green' product as eco-friendly as it claims to be? Environment. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/what-is-greenwashing-how-to-spot

[2] [18] CleanUp News. (2021, February 2). 11 ways to avoid greenwashed products. CleanUp News. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.cleanupnews.org/home/how-to-avoid-greenwashing

[3] Delmas, M. A., & Burbano, V. C. (2011). The Drivers of Greenwashing. Columbia Business School. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/mygsb/faculty/research/pubfiles/14016/cmr5401_04_printversion_delmasburbano.pdf

[4] DW Planet A. (2021, March 26). Why Recycled Ocean Plastic is (often) a lie. YouTube. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://youtu.be/4o9-FkSHGWA

[5] [6] Lorance, A. (2010). An Assessment of U.S. Responses to Greenwashing and Proposals to Improve Enforcement. Scholarly Commons at Hofstra Law. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/hofstra_law_student_works/3/

[7] [17]Robinson, D. (2022, November 13). What is greenwashing and how to avoid it. Earth.Org. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://earth.org/what-is-greenwashing/

[8] W, B. (n.d.). What is clean beauty? Ethique. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://ethique.com/blogs/science/what-is-clean-beauty

[9] Laville, S. (2022, June 30). Coca-Cola among brands greenwashing over packaging, report says. The Guardian. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/30/coca-cola-among-brands-greenwashing-over-packaging-report-says

[10] Our Changing Climate. (2017, July 28). Greenwashing: A Fiji Water Story. YouTube. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://youtu.be/mOpa8kd6fBI

[11] DW Planet A. (2021, January 8). H&M and Zara: Can fast fashion be eco-friendly? YouTube. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://youtu.be/00NIQgQE_d4

[12] Climate Neutral. (2023). Climate Neutral Certified: About Climate Neutral. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.climateneutral.org/about

[14] Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). The Standard. Global Standard. Retrieved from: https://global-standard.org/the-standard

[15] Green Seal. (2023). Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://greenseal.org/splash/

[16] USDA organic. U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.usda.gov/topics/organic


Other references:

-Choose Cruelty Free, Australia. (2017, November). Best Cruelty-Free Standards. Cruelty Free Standards. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.bunnyarmy.org/articles/article-cruelty-free-standards.html

-Leaping Bunny Program. (2022). The Corporate Standard of Compassion For Animals ("The Standard"). Leaping Bunny. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.leapingbunny.org/about/corporate-standard-compassion-animals-standard

-PETA. (2023). PETA's 'Global Beauty Without Bunnies' Program. PETA. Retrieved March 12, 2023, from https://www.peta.org/living/personal-care-fashion/beauty-without-bunnies/

-Transport & Environment. (2020, February 5). Ryanair fake 'green' ad shows why lawmakers must take on its soaring emissions. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/ryanair-fake-green-ad-shows-why-lawmakers-must-take-its-soaring-emissions/


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