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What Is Greenwashing and How to Spot It?

So what is greenwashing, and how can we spot it?

This article takes a look at companies guilty of misleading consumers and addresses ways to be vigilant when purchasing products claiming to be something they are not.

Have you ever walked into a shop and spotted an “eco-friendly” label on something? Chances are, it's misleading, and that adds to the dilemma of trying to pick environmentally-friendly products. You see, many companies are starting to market their products as “green” or “eco-friendly” without having received any third-party certification of this.

Now that environmentally-friendly labelling and marketing are on everyone's radar, companies will find new ways to deceive consumers. They'll bring out new brands that are eco-friendly at first glance but don't tell the whole story.

The term Greenwashing first came into play in the early 80s by a man named Jay Westerveld. In an essay written on a strategy used widely across hotels to encourage guests to reuse towels in a bid to save the environment. The term greenwashing was used to describe how companies were branding their products as “green” (environmentally friendly), and he felt it was misleading to the consumer.

In an article by Marie Claire, they explained that the term Greenwashing was first recognised as an official term by the Oxford Dictionary. Defining disinformation and dissemination by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

Over the last few years, we've seen a number of companies being pulled up by environmental activists for their green-washed marketing. Worryingly, this means that consumers are going to be confused about what is and what isn't eco friendly. There will also be less transparency in how brands are using the environment as a marketing strategy. That's why it's more important than ever to make sure you're an informed consumer.

Guilty as charged - Here are a few examples of companies greenwashing.

In September 2015, Volkswagen was caught red-handed installing a “defeat device” in its diesel vehicles. This device made it appear as if the vehicles were following emissions rules when they were actually emitting nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times the legal limit.

Many would argue that the Volkswagen emissions scandal is the epitome of greenwashing – an attempt to deceive consumers into believing that the company was more eco-friendly than it actually was. The effects of this deceit highlighted what needed to change within the industry and gave way to allow consumers to spot greenwashing and do their own research.

Mcdonalds were also guilty of greenwashing when in 2019, the launch of their recyclable cardboard straws proved they were not as recyclable as they claimed.

The staggering volume of plastic manufactured in the last few decades has become a crisis. The volume of plastic produced today is such that, even if recycled, there's no single place to put all of it. Add to this the number of plastic products that consumers use and then dispose of without recycling. It's easy to see why the issue is so dire.

The fast-food chain says they're making a "commitment" to the environment with their new card-based drinking straws made from recycled materials. But in reality, the fast-food giant has been quietly and unapologetically complicit in destroying the planet for years.

In an article published by the BBC, Mcdonald's uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, and the move to paper was a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic.

One of the world's biggest sportswear brands, Adidas, has made an unprecedented pledge to stop using non-recyclable plastic in its products. The company is launching its next-generation Stan Smith trainers with a goal for 50% of their polyester to be recycled by 2024...

However, it was apparent that only the upper of the shoe had been made from recycled material.

The jury, therefore, found that it was unlikely that the consumer would have concluded that 50% of the shoe (as a whole) had been made from recycled materials. Therefore, the claim was not correctly substantiated.

Good on you ​​is a website that does all the heavy lifting when it comes to investigating how sustainable and ethical well-known fashion brands published their rating for Adidas and claimed the brand’s overall rating had decreased from “Good” to “It’s a start”.

Many companies say that sustainability is at the heart of everything they do but how many of them actually deserve this claim? As sustainability marketing has become more commonplace, too many companies claim that their product or service will help deliver environmental benefits without really backing up those claims.

Of course, a number of companies do fulfil their promises and are making truly sustainable products. After all, if you take the time to understand what makes a green product different, it’s easier to spot ones that fall short.

As a consumer, you want to support eco-friendly and sustainable brands. But even as a natural-minded consumer, it can be hard to determine if the products you're purchasing are truly "green". Here's how you can ensure that your purchases support environmentally friendlier production and packing methods while also remaining conscious of subtle greenwashing tactics.

Top tips to becoming self-aware when looking to purchase products

  1. Look out for buzzwords being used to promote a brand as sustainable, and recyclable.

Become familiar with the stamp of approval that should come along with these bold claims. Lack of proof should be a number one deterrent.

  1. Become aware of vagueness when a brand tells you its stance on sustainability, usually, words like all-natural or eco-friendly are fluffed up buzzwords that have no real substance when it comes to a company or brand informing customers on their environmental impact or sustainability policy.

  1. Research the products that claim to be recyclable, there is usually a hidden factor, for example, a company may state their packaging is 70% biodegradable but leave out the manufacturing emissions, whether the products are made overseas, and if so, how the products are transported.

  1. Suggestive imagery that may appear on the packaging and labels of a product. The imagery on the packaging may imply that it is a green company, uses minimal plastics and recycled paper and has the most ethical business practices to ever grace your shopping experience. But if you look closely, you will see that they have not actually gained any of the aforementioned certifications and are just using them as a gimmick.

Now you are armed with a few tips on identifying greenwashing, it should be easier to make a conscious effort to avoid being drawn into false promises that not only line the pockets of large corporations under the guise of saving the planet but also negatively undermine the huge steps genuine green companies are taking to make the world a better place for future generations to come.


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