Marketers and communicators celebrated the International Day for their profession, World Marketing and Communications Day, on October 3rd. Often, their work helps us choose the right product or service, but at times, it can also mislead us—whether intentionally or in the best of faith. More and more people are paying attention to the eco-credentials of products, and marketers are increasingly harnessing this trend in their messages. So we’re here to explain how to detect greenwashing, so you can be sure you’re choosing only genuinely eco-friendly products.
What is Greenwashing
When a company claims to be nature-friendly for marketing purposes, but in fact does nothing meaningful to protect the environment, it is called greenwashing. Greenwashing is dangerous not only because deceptive companies are tricking their customers, but also because—when the truth is revealed—customers can lose their trust in truly sustainable brands too.
One widespread example of greenwashing is using bio-based plastic for packaging, and shouting about it as if it’s the most eco-friendly choice. Check out our previous article to find out why this is unequivocal greenwashing. To help you understand this phenomenon better, here are a few companies who’ve been caught out in other attempts at greenwashing:
Nestlé is one of the largest companies contributing to plastic pollution, but they declared that they will make their packaging 100% recyclable or reusable by 2025. However, no clear targets or a timeline have yet been released. Nor have any additional efforts since been made to help increase the recycling rate. And finally, seeing as some of the countries they sell their products in have no recycling systems in place, offering recyclable packaging doesn't actually help to reduce the amount of waste pollution in those countries.
Starbucks’s “strawless lid” contains more plastic than the old lid and straw put together. The company also stresses that these lids are made from commonly recyclable plastic. But seeing as global statistics show that only 9% of plastic is recycled, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of these lids will be recycled.
Mars declared having achieved their goal of sending zero waste to landfill. But what does this mean in practice? It simply means they no longer bury waste from their factories in landfills, but incinerate it in waste-to-energy plants instead—also not a nature-friendly solution. And besides, their chocolate bars are still sold in non-recyclable packaging.
Why Does Greenwashing Exist?
Marketers’ intentions are pretty clear. They’re trying to attract more customers through eco messages, as 64% of Generation X and 75% of Millennials will spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. It’s not all bad news though. When a company acknowledges its impact on the environment, changes its business strategies, and communicates evidence of steps taken towards a greener future, it is called “green marketing”. This should be commended—we’ll always welcome news about genuine nature-friendly initiatives from transparent businesses.
Sadly though, brands are often simply trying to catch up with the eco-conscious trend, and make customers buy their products without remorse—literally cheating shoppers in the process. Fast fashion brands are big culprits of this. 96% of H&M’s sustainability claims, for example, turned out to be false.
Leave No Chance to Greenwashing
Greenwashing can be hard to detect. So to help you out, we’ve gathered together some “red flags”:
Green design. Products with leaves, trees and landscapes on them or their packaging, or simply using green colours, are unconsciously perceived as safe and nature-friendly. However, they can still be harmful to your health, animals or the environment.
One eco-friendly product in an array of polluting ones. In this way, companies continue to make money in the usual polluting ways, but offer a green initiative to clean up their reputation.
Offsetting. Instead of changing their business model or practices, brands invest in planting trees to “neutralise” their footprint. Though they are touted as a way to cancel out greenhouse gas emissions, carbon offsets are not without their problems.
The issue is that they allow companies or individuals to feel better about polluting without actually doing anything about those emissions, and that assumes the offset one purchases actually corresponds to real carbon removal or pollution prevention.
Shifting the guilt to the customers. For example, instead of taking responsibility for producing polluting products, companies prefer accusing customers of mismanaged waste and low recycling rates.
Eco-friendly packaging, but not the product. Plastic-free packaging doesn’t improve the situation if the product remains unsustainable.
Hiding the whole truth behind a statement. Companies who use this trick will tell you proudly about the sustainable materials they are using, but forget to mention that they make up only a fraction of their product.
Statements that come from the law. Companies may emphasise a feature that is actually required by law in the country of its origin or operation, meaning the product is no better than others on offer.
Minor changes. For example, a company shouts out about implementing recycling schemes in its offices, while their production model remains wasteful.
What to do if you detect a case of greenwashing? At minimum, avoid products and services from that brand. Or even better—call them out on it! It’s best to talk to a company directly first, to try and clarify the issue. If you get no answer or their answer doesn’t satisfy you, there are lots of ways you can raise awareness about it. For example, on your own social media, on the brand’s social media, by contacting a newspaper, or approaching a governmental consumer rights agency or local non-governmental organisation that’s fighting greenwashing.
The more “trendy” caring about the environment becomes, the more false environmental claims you can find from businesses. Let’s find out together how to avoid falling for greenwashing.