Greenwashing: what it is and how to spot it
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As the world slowly makes its way towards a more sustainable existence, companies are eager to hitch themselves to the wave of environmentally friendly actions. This intent to appear sustainable instead of actually putting in the work to be sustainable is the heart of greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a way to mislead people into thinking that a company is more socially responsible than it actually is. Most times, this is done as a way to sell more products to consumers who believe they are making a responsible purchase.
Using marketing as a way to lie about your sustainability is especially nefarious, as many consumers make active choices to buy sustainable products that are marketed to them as such. Due to greenwashing in some cases, the sustainable option is nothing but deceit.
The term "greenwashing" was first coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld when he noticed a hotel's request to "reuse your towels" to reduce water usage. But, while they were putting the responsibility on guests to be more green, the hotel was simultaneously expanding oceanside bungalows in the water they claimed to be protecting with fewer washing machine runs.
Advertising itself can be deceiving, but so can well-crafted wording. Take natural gas, for instance. The name makes it sound harmless, like it's an all-natural response to dirty coal and petroleum, when in fact the process of extracting natural gas directly contributes to climate change.
Let's take a look at a few more examples of greenwashing that you've probably come across in your own life.
Green caps that are made of less plastic are an easy way to appear sustainably conscious. Image source: Coca-Cola
One major example of greenwashing occurs with companies selling plastic bottles of water. You've probably seen them claim their bottles use less plastic or they've made smaller caps to reduce plastic waste. The green packaging above is an added touch, creating the illusion of sustainability.
We're all about using less plastic, but regardless of the size of the cap, it is still going to take thousands of years to break down or become microplastics that clog up the ocean.
But plastic use isn't the only environmental issue that comes along with bottled water. Many times bottling companies have water rights to siphon water, depleting sources for local use. Once that water is taken, it is packaged in oil-based plastic and transported nationally - even globally - via gas-guzzling trucks and ships.
A smaller bottle cap won't change the fact that bottled water is inherently unsustainable and has a negative environmental impact.
This Instagram ad from Poland Spring is a great example of how companies use their advertisements and packaging to come across as green products. The plastic water bottle is surrounded by greenery, flowers, and a nice water spring. The phrases “fueled by nature” and 100% natural spring water” don't necessarily have meaning behind them, but they make the consumer feel like it's a more eco-friendly product.
The food industry also capitalizes on the “natural” trend, branding whole product lines like chicken nuggets as “Naturals” with packaging that has an earth-tone color palate and a little green leaf for flair.
But, the issue is that the word "natural" is not regulated and can be used on any product. For reference, for a product to be labeled "Organic", there are a lot of steps that a company must take to get that distinction. But "natural" can be used in any way.
The "Made Better" seal was initiated by Poland Spring, to hold themselves more accountable but because it is not a third-party source, it is not very trustworthy.
The green trees allow for a charming photo-op, but it doesn’t change the fact that bp’s main revenue source is a leading cause of climate change. Image source: BP
Oil companies are notorious for corporate greenwashing - especially bp. In fact, bp is the company that popularized the iconic term “carbon footprint”, to shift the social responsibility of climate change onto individuals, instead of large corporations.
bp's latest "green initiative" is its Net Zero campaign. Net Zero means that an entity is removing more carbon out of the atmosphere than they are putting into it. bp is boasting their #bpnetzero plan that encompasses a few projects, from feasibility studies into creating green hydrogen, to carbon sequestration and storage.
What keys you into the greenwashing attempt is the “feasibility” studies. These studies could indeed lead to net-zero options that result in positive environmental benefits, but removing carbon that's already been emitted is only part of the battle. bp isn't promising to stop burning fossil fuels altogether, just that they'll try and figure out ways to make it so they stay at "net zero" carbon emissions. This also doesn’t take into account numerous other greenhouse gas emissions that will still be released by bp.
For a company that is directly responsible for climate change, net zero goals made after the earth has reached a tipping point are a bit too late.
At the end of the day, greenwashing is lying, or at the very least stretching the truth. Before consumers pieced together the deceptive marketing claims, it was a way for corporations to bide time and look more responsible than they actually are.
It can persuade people to choose one brand over another as a “lesser of two evils”, which is exactly what the company wants. But consumers might not be choosing the product that is actually the best, simply because the marketing of one is more persuasive.
Many times, the companies engaging in greenwashing are the ones that are acting in incredibly unsustainable ways. In addition to oil companies and bottled water, fast fashion companies and airlines are other big greenwashing perpetrators.
It is easy to fall victim to greenwashing but there are some things to keep your eyes peeled to spot a company’s attempts to trick you. If a chemical company or fossil fuel company is advertising its sustainable practices, take all of those with a grain of salt. Their businesses are inherently unsustainable and they could be pretending to switch toward a greener future.
The list below offers quick signs you can spot to see if a company is engaging in greenwashing.
A lot of greenwashing ads or practices are challenging to pinpoint, and that is by design. Looking back on examples from decades ago, like this video about double-hulled oil tankers, the greenwashing attempts are easy to spot. A double-hulled oil tanker reducing oil spills is a good thing, sure, but burning that oil never will be.
But examples like Hefty bags claiming that they are "designed to handle all types of recyclables" are harder to miss. You can read that green claim and think you are making an environmentally conscious choice, but really those words do not mean a thing. Plastic garbage bags cannot be recycled, and typically, recyclables need to be put in bins without bags at all.
Do your best to read every environmental claim with a bit of caution. Companies know that people care about sustainability, and sometimes it is quicker and easier to change up marketing language that makes consumers feel more eco-friendly than it is to change a company to be sustainable.
Tantree and Patagonia are two companies that practice green marketing, not greenwashing.
Any company that advertises sustainable practices or products is not necessarily greenwashing. Some companies genuinely do practice sustainability.
One way to tell is to look for B Corp Certifications, which is a third-party certification that companies need to apply to. To qualify for a B Corp Certification, you need to prove that your company's main intention is not profit. You must prove that your company balances a purpose, like sustainability, with profit.
Certain industries also have ways to ensure their products follow more rigor than competitors, like Marine Stewardship Certification for sustainable fishing. Use these types of certifications as a way to gauge if a company is being honest or not.
Some examples of sustainable marketing come from brands like Tentree and Patagonia. Tentree is a clothing brand that creates sustainable clothing options but also plants 10 trees for every item purchased.
Patagonia is often cited as an example of green marketing, like its famous Do Not Buy This Jacket campaign. They also back up their sustainable commitments by repairing Patagonia items for little or no cost.
For as long as we exist in a society where consumption is necessary, we can do our best to buy options that are made consciously. Consumers who want to make a conscious switch away from fossil fuels and start using renewable energy can consider installing solar panels, which not only give you more energy independence and access to clean energy but can also save you money on your electricity bill.