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10 Ways You’re Being Greenwashed

Greenwashing isn’t something that’s new. Nor is it just a buzzword. Chances are, you’ve fallen victim to it without even knowing. But don’t worry, it’s not your fault! 

In today’s society, we’d like to think that people are more conscious and are increasingly looking for products and companies that align with their values of sustainability and eco-friendliness. However, amidst the surge in green and sustainable marketing, many companies engage in a practice known as greenwashing, a deceptive tactic aimed at portraying a false image of environmental responsibility. Greenwashing not only misleads consumers but also undermines genuine efforts towards sustainability.

But what exactly is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing tactic employed by companies to create a false impression of their commitment to environmental sustainability. It involves promoting products, services, or corporate policies as environmentally friendly or beneficial when, in reality, they may not be. This practice often involves the misuse or overstatement of eco-friendly features, exaggerated claims about environmental impact reduction, or the omission of crucial information about a product’s true environmental footprint.

Essentially, greenwashing aims to capitalise on growing consumer concern for the environment without genuinely implementing sustainable practices, ultimately misleading consumers and undermining genuine efforts towards environmental conservation.

To navigate through this maze of misleading claims, here are ten ways (and examples) to spot yourself being greenwashed through:

  1. Vague terminology

Watch out for vague or unsubstantiated claims such as “eco-friendly,” “green,” or “natural.” These terms lack specificity and can be used to mislead consumers into believing a product is environmentally friendly when it may not be. For example, a cleaning product is labelled “eco-friendly” without specifying what makes it environmentally friendly. Without clear definitions or explanations of how the product is eco-friendly, people are left to assume its environmental benefits.

If there was a king of all kings when it came to greenwashing, It might have to be BP. Amongst many of their greenwashing practices, one example is when they launched a high-profile marketing campaign in the early 2000s called “Beyond Petroleum,” which aimed to position the company as environmentally friendly and committed to renewable energy. However, the campaign’s messaging was vague, and it did not reflect BP’s core business, which primarily focused on fossil fuel extraction and refining.

  1. Lack of certifications

Genuine eco-friendly products often carry certifications from reputable organisations such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Energy Star, or USDA Organic. If a product claims to be environmentally friendly but lacks any credible certifications, it could be a sign of greenwashing. For example, a clothing brand claims its products are made from sustainable materials but lacks certifications such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or OEKO-TEX Standard 100, which verify sustainable and ethical manufacturing practices.

Volkswagen claimed that its diesel vehicles were environmentally friendly and complied with emissions standards. However, it was later revealed that the company had installed software in its vehicles to cheat emissions tests, leading to the Dieselgate scandal. Despite claiming compliance with environmental regulations, Volkswagen’s vehicles lacked the necessary certifications and were emitting harmful pollutants at levels far above legal limits.

  1. Hidden trade-offs

Be cautious of products that highlight one environmental benefit while ignoring other negative impacts. For example, a disposable water bottle advertised as biodegradable may decompose faster than traditional plastic bottles. Still, it overlooks the energy-intensive manufacturing process and the environmental impact of single-use plastics.

Nestlé is no stranger to greenwashing. They introduced the “Eco-Shape” water bottle, marketed as using less plastic and being more environmentally friendly than traditional water bottles. However, while the bottle may have used less plastic, it still encouraged the consumption of single-use plastic bottles, contributing to environmental waste and pollution.

  1. Exaggerated claims

Beware of exaggerated or unrealistic claims about a product’s environmental benefits. If a product promises to solve all environmental problems or claims to be 100% eco-friendly, it’s likely an exaggeration designed to deceive consumers. For example, a fast-food chain boasts about its “100% organic” menu, implying that all ingredients are sourced sustainably. However, upon closer inspection, only a small percentage of items on the menu meet organic standards, while the majority do not.

Fiji Water labelled itself as “carbon-negative,” implying that it had a net-negative carbon footprint. However, this claim was challenged by environmental groups, which pointed out that the company’s carbon offset projects were insufficient to offset its overall carbon emissions from production and transportation.

  1. Green packaging

Greenwashing often extends to packaging, with companies using earthy tones, images of nature, or phrases like “eco-packaging” to create the illusion of sustainability. However, truly sustainable packaging goes beyond aesthetics and focuses on reducing waste and using recyclable or compostable materials. For example, a snack company introduces new packaging featuring images of forests and wildlife to convey a natural and eco-friendly image. However, the packaging remains non-recyclable or non-compostable, contributing to environmental waste.

McDonald’s announced plans to transition to “sustainable” packaging made from renewable or recycled materials. However, the company’s efforts were criticised for focusing more on the aesthetics of packaging than on addressing the fundamental issues of single-use packaging and waste reduction.

  1. Unverified statistics

Scrutinise any statistics or data presented to support environmental claims. Without credible sources or independent verification, these numbers could be misleading or exaggerated to manipulate consumers. For example, a car manufacturer claims its electric vehicle reduces carbon emissions by 90% compared to traditional gasoline vehicles. However, without independent verification or peer-reviewed studies to support this claim, consumers cannot trust its accuracy.

ExxonMobil ran advertisements claiming that it was investing in clean energy and reducing its carbon emissions. However, these claims were not supported by independent verification or transparent reporting of the company’s environmental impact, leading to accusations of greenwashing. In fact, in 2022, ExxonMobil’s net equity greenhouse gas emissions reached 110 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent

  1. Lack of transparency

Genuine eco-conscious companies are transparent about their sustainability practices, including their supply chain, manufacturing processes, and environmental impact. If a company refuses to disclose this information or provides vague responses to inquiries, it could be hiding something. For example, a fashion brand markets its clothing as sustainable but refuses or vaguely discloses information about its supply chain or manufacturing processes. This lack of transparency raises suspicions about the brand’s commitment to sustainability.

H&M launched its “Conscious Collection,” which included clothing made from organic cotton and recycled materials, as part of its sustainability efforts. However, the company faced criticism for its lack of transparency regarding its supply chain and labour practices, raising immense doubts about the authenticity of its sustainability claims. The company was then faced with a class-action lawsuit over alleged misleading and false marketing of a ‘sustainable’ clothing line.

  1. Greenwashing by association

Some companies attempt to capitalise on the eco-friendly reputation of others by associating their products with well-known environmental organisations or causes. However, mere association does not guarantee authenticity, so it’s essential to verify the legitimacy of such claims. For example, a company sponsors an environmental charity event and prominently displays its logo alongside well-known environmental organisations. While the company benefits from the positive association, its own environmental practices may fall short of sustainability standards.

Chevron formed partnerships with conservation organisations and sponsored environmental initiatives to improve its public image. However, critics argued that these partnerships were a form of greenwashing, allowing Chevron to deflect attention from its environmental violations and continue its harmful practices.

  1. Ignoring the Big Picture

Greenwashing often focuses on minor or insignificant environmental efforts while ignoring more significant issues. For example, a food company promotes its use of organic ingredients but ignores the environmental impact of its packaging, transportation, and distribution practices, which contribute significantly to its overall carbon footprint.

Amazon announced its Climate Pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and become carbon-neutral by 2030. However, critics pointed out that the company’s pledge ignored its significant carbon footprint from fossil fuel-intensive operations such as cloud computing and logistics.

  1. Lack of long-term commitment

Genuine sustainability requires a long-term commitment to reducing environmental impact and implementing meaningful changes. Beware of companies that jump on the green bandwagon temporarily or only make superficial changes for marketing purposes. For example, a hotel chain launches a “green initiative” by offering guests the option to reuse towels to conserve water. However, this initiative is short-lived and discontinued after a few months, indicating a lack of genuine commitment to sustainability.

Shell has engaged in various greenwashing campaigns over the years, promoting its investments in renewable energy and carbon capture technologies. However, critics argue that these efforts are insufficient to offset the environmental damage caused by the company’s continued focus on fossil fuel extraction and production. Last year, Shell pulled out of its $100 million carbon offset plan.

Greenwashing remains a prevalent issue in today’s marketplace, making it crucial for everyone to be vigilant and discerning when evaluating environmental claims. By understanding these ten warning signs, you can better navigate through the sea of green marketing and make informed decisions that truly support sustainability. Remember, actions speak louder than words! And genuine eco-friendly companies are committed to walking the talk, not just talking the green talk.