What is Greenwashing? And how can I spot it?
8 Minute Read
Greenwashing is more common than ever. And with businesses seeing the benefits of having an eco-conscious brand or mission, more and more are jumping on the green bandwagon. In fact, a lot of the work that I do with my sustainability consulting is make sure my clients are not greenwashing their customers. But are instead doing their due diligence to make sure they do things right and have the facts and action to back it up. But what is greenwashing? And how can you spot it?
Greenwashing is when businesses portray themselves as eco friendly, sustainable, or green when they’re really not. They either make claims they can’t back up, or use symbols, colors, or words that consumers associate with being eco-friendly to convince them into thinking they are.
Here are a few examples of greenwashing:
- a beauty care line says its products are “natural”. This one really gets me because everything that exists in the world is technically natural. So a company can use a bunch of natural ingredients to create a bunch of toxic crap, and they can still market themselves as natural. The truth is, the word “natural” has no legal regulations or parameters behind it. So any Joe Shmoe can call his products natural and get away with it
- a plastic bag company says its disposable shopping bags are biodegradable. Like the example above, the term “biodegradable” has no legal regulations behind it. That plastic bag can take up to 5,000 years to break down. And legally, it can still be labelled as biodegradable. Pretty messed up, right?
Lemme give you one more…
- a beef company says its beef is “grass fed,” when in reality they only fed their cows one bucket of grass, then grains for the remainder of their lives. This one’s pretty messed up because the real issue is the regulation. Farmers can technically feed their cows one single blade of grass, then feed it grain for the rest of its life. And legally, they are still allowed to put “grass-fed” on their label. Not exactly what the consumer thinks when they see “grass fed” on the label at the grocery. The problem is that many farmers do stay true to feeding their cattle grass for their entire lives. But others can find the loopholes and maximize on the profits and the naïveté of consumers.
The thing with greenwashing is it leans on the fact that the average consumer doesn’t know the regulations behind certain terms. And it uses things that people associate with being eco-friendly to manipulate consumers into buying from them.
It’s sad, but you almost have to be a friggin’ detective in order to get the truth from companies. Whether you’re looking at healthy food claims, nontoxic claims, or eco-friendly claims.
How can you spot greenwashing?
A great place to start is to do a little research. Go onto the company’s website or look on their their packaging. See if you can find any information on how they run their company or what their mission is. Then, see if they have data or other specific information on how they execute these claims. Some companies will have an entire page dedicated to sustainability; others might mention it on their home or about page.
Look for the “how” and the “why” instead of just the “what”
If a company tells you that its products are eco friendly, it also needs to tell you how they execute on that claim and measure that impact. They will also tell you why it has intentionally chosen to make that decision.
Here’s a subtle example of greenwashing:
A bamboo toothbrush company says that its toothbrushes are biodegradable; therefore, it’s eco friendly. They don’t tell you anything other than: “We’re an eco friendly alternative to plastic toothbrushes”. And they leave it at that.
While the above statement that they’re better than plastic toothbrushes is accurate, what they don’t tell you is:
- the bamboo handle alone is biodegradable
- said bamboo handle will likely not break down in a landfill (which is usually where it ends up); instead, it needs to be composted in a backyard compost or a commercial compost (which most people don’t have access to)
- the bristles are not biodegradable, and are most likely made of plastic (which is not biodegradable or compostable) or are made of compostable plastics (which need to be disposed of in a commercial compost)
- because the bristles are not biodegradable (in the way that people understand the term to mean), they need to be removed from the handle with tweezers or pliers and thrown in the trash
While, yes, a bamboo toothbrush is certainly better than a traditional plastic toothbrush, the company fails to educate the customer on how to dispose of it in the most eco-friendly way. Otherwise, it’s just gonna end up in the landfill with all the other plastic toothbrushes. Which somewhat defeats the whole purpose of buying a plastic-free toothbrush.
Here’s an example from Patagonia’s website, where they dive into “how” and “why” they’re a sustainable company:
You can click on each screenshot to be taken directly to the full page. Source: Patagonia
Transparency is key
The less a company tells you about its sustainable or ethical practices, the more weary you should be. If they don’t talk about it at all, it most likely means that they’re working in the fastest, cheapest way possible. This means they’re likely cutting corners. And they do this by opting out of things like fair wages, safe working conditions, environmentally safe protocols, and sustainable materials.
With greenwashing, the best philosophy is: “more is better”. The more information the company gives you, the more transparent they are, the more legit they are.
Look for certifications
Third-party certifications are another great way to verify the authenticity of a company or organization. They aren’t the be-all-end-all. But they’re a good indicator of the company’s due diligence because you have to go through a certification process in order to use that certification, its name, logo, and/or label.
One of my favorite 3rd-party certifications is 1% for the planet. When a company uses the 1% for the planet logo, that means that they’ve legally agreed to donate 1% of their revenue to an environmental organization. And the 1% for the planet organization verifies the status of those donations annually through tax information.
I recently became a member of 1% for the planet. And I’m so excited use my business to support environmental justice organizations that create an equitable and safe planet for everyone.
Another very telling certification is the B Corp Certification, which takes businesses through a rigorous process of formalizing, evaluating, and improving their ethical, social, and environmental practices and values. Any company that has the B Corp seal of approval is legit and has the documentation to back it up.
These are just two of the many green certifications out there that can help you spot companies that are not greenwashing. And they help you identify which companies are staying true to their word and to their values. Some other well-known green certifications include: FSC Certified (for sustainable sourcing of trees), Leaping Bunny (for cruelty-free products), and OEKO-TEX (for sustainable fabrics), among so many others.
If you’re interested in getting a green certification for your business, or have a friend who might be interested in doing the same, click here to get help navigating that process.
When a company has dedicated time, energy, and often money towards being more sustainable, they’re gonna tell you about it. They know those kinds of things go a long way with consumers and they’re not gonna stay quiet about it. Of course, they usually make that decision because they truly believe in it. But they’re also gonna make sure you damn well know about it. So if a company is making claims that they can’t back up, your bullshit meter should be on high alert.
Skimmed to the bottom?
Aright, I see you… here’s a video on most of what I just talked about.
Could your business be unknowingly greenwashing its customers?
As you can see from some of the examples above, greenwashing can be quite subtle at times. And to be honest, I don’t think some companies even realize they’re doing it. Like the bamboo toothbrush example I gave. They might have had the best intentions, but their execution was terrible. Perhaps they were genuinely trying to offer an eco-friendly alternative to plastic toothbrushes. But without taking the time to fully educate their customers, they really fudged the entire thing. And they make me questions their intentions and ethics. That’s the last thing they need.
People need to trust you before they can buy from you.
So it’s important to make sure you’re fully executing on your “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” claims. And its even more important to properly communicate that to your customers. That’s exactly the type of work that I do with my clients as a sustainability consultant. Click here to make sure you’re doing your due diligence.