What is greenwashing? How to spot (& avoid) brands doing it
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This is important.
Greenwashing is, sadly, a sustainability buzzword you’re likely all too familiar with. Also known as ‘green sheen’, it’s a term bandied around the eco-sphere almost as often as plastic free, zero waste and, well, Greta Thunberg.
But, question: would you be able to confidently define it to a group of friends, and, more importantly, are you capable of spotting a brand, business or person actually doing it?
The answer is likely no – most people wouldn’t. One recent Good Housekeeping Institute poll found that more than 85% of readers didn’t know the meaning. Greenwashing, by definition, is meant to be subtle and deceptive, pulling the wool over your eyes when it comes to best eco-friendly practice.
We’ve written complete guides to sustainable living; educated you on how to calculate (and reduce) your carbon footprint; and even compiled a shop-able listicle of period pants, to help you make your periods sustainable and less wasteful.
Next up? Your complete guide to greenwashing, with definitions from sustainability experts explaining what it is, when it first started happening and why it’s so harmful, plus the easiest way to identify a person or brand doing it.
Choose the brands that are doing good – not the brands that are doing their best to look like they’re doing good.
So, what is greenwashing?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, greenwashing is the “activities by a company or an organisation that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment.” A common form of greenwash, they share, is to ‘publicly claim a commitment to the environment while quietly lobbying to avoid regulation.’
Essentially it’s a marketing spin – or ploy – by a business or person to make you believe they’re invested in eco-friendly, ethical practices when the reality is quite the opposite.
According to Ben Mead, managing director for Hohenstein, a founding member of OEKO-TEX, it’s simply the practice of falsely promoting an organisation’s environmental efforts. “Generally, the hallmarks of greenwashing include vague or unsubstantiated claims that give the organisation a false image of caring for the environment,” he explains.
When did the term greenwashing come to be?
It’s fairly new, beginning to be used widely in the early 90’s post the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992.
It was first recognised as an official term by the Oxford Dictionary in 1999, where it was defined as ‘disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.’
But, as Damian Soong, CEO and co-founder of B-Corp Form Nutrition highlights, the first use of the term seems to be in Jay Westerveld’s 1986 essay. “In the paper, he claimed the little cards you see in hotels encouraging you to reuse the towels are falsely promoted as an environmental strategy. In reality, it was designed to save work and costs,” he explains.
Are there any famous examples of greenwashing?
“Probably the largest and most prominent example is the Volkswagen emissions scandal,” shares Soong. In short, their cars were sold with a software modification in the Diesel engines which detected when they were being tested and changed the engine performance accordingly to improve environmental test results.
“Volkwagen admitted cheating emissions tests and had to recall and rectify over eleven million cars,” explains Soong. “The scandal went on to encompass other carmakers including BMW and Mercedes-Benz.”
Why is greenwashing harmful?
Well, aside from the obvious, greenwashing misleads and deceives you as a consumer. “It could lead you into thinking you’re supporting products and brands that align with your own eco-friendly values, when really, they don’t,” explains Mead.
In some countries, he points out, greenwashing is not only unethical, but illegal. He shares that the EU is introducing accountability legislation, which could come into force as early as mid this year.
“The knock on effect of this deceit goes much deeper,” shares Soong. “Ultimately, it means consumer attention, support and cash gets diverted away from products and solutions with real credentials that make an impact on some of the worlds biggest issues,” he shares.
6 easy ways to spot a person or brand greenwashing
It’s not always easy, Soong emphasises, but these six tips could help, next time you’re not sure.
1. Look behind the buzzwords
You’re looking for actual evidence that backs up any claims that a business is ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’. “Sadly, these terms are not controlled, so anyone can use them,” Soong explains.
Top tip: Look for stamps of approval from organisations such as B Corporation, or certifications such as Fair Trade or Cradle to Grave. There are many more making it easy for you to spot a legitimately eco-friendly business from a not-so-legit.
2. Do your research
May sound hard, actually isn’t if a brand is genuinely doing their bit to be eco-friendly. “Do your research and look for authenticity,” Soong advises. “Ask yourself, did that plant based brand used to be dairy or meat brand? Maybe they had an epiphany, but more often than not it’s a sign of opportunism, rather than values,” he shares.
Top tip: It never does any harm to ask a brand, if you’re not sure on their eco credentials, shares designer Barbeline of Barbeline London, an eco-friendly brand known largely for their reusable wallpaper. “Just talk to whoever’s promoting eco-friendly products: more often than not, if they’re truly doing their bit, they’ll be more than happy to tell you about it,” she shares.
3. Use your common sense
Again, this one’s an obvious one, but it’s important. “Do you really think shipping water from Fiji could be sustainable?,” asks Soong. “Or that ‘sustainable’ fashion brand – where is it choosing to retail?”
Top tip: Often the answers are right in front of us – trust your gut.
4. Rely on the right resources
There are a whole load of handy sites, books and social pages out there to help you on your eco journey. Soong recommends checking out the B Corporation Directory, and reading the following books.
How To Break Up With Fast Fashion: A guilt-free guide to changing the way you shop – for good, £4.99
5. Make sure claims are verified by a third party
Without third party independent research, testing and certification, environmental claims are without credence, points out Mead. “Today, some of the biggest offenders include adjectives and messaging like ‘sustainably made’, ‘clean’, ‘non-toxic,’ and ‘all natural’. They do not have universally accepted and clearly defined terms or standards,” he explains.
Top tip: Check the website or label to see if a trusted third-party organisation has verified the brand’s claims. “Try to think about sustainability from a holistic perspective. Look for labels that cover the full spectrum of factors that go into being environmentally friendly,” recommends Mead. That includes:
- Testing for harmful substances
- Environmentally friendly production
- Safe and socially responsible working conditions.
6. Make the investment
And, finally, know that sometimes, to shop with brands that don’t greenwash, you do need to invest a little more. “If a product is cheap, it’s probably because it includes an element that’s been shipped halfway around the world,” shares Rob of COAT paint.
“That footprint isn’t acceptable anymore. We have to understand that buying sustainable products and taking the sustainable approach is unfortunately still more expensive” he explains. “Be wary of buying super cheap,” he recommends. “Be curious and don’t be afraid to ask the manufacturer any questions.”