Doesn’t it seem like every product you buy today is environmentally-friendly in one way or another? Recyclable packaging, organic ingredients, low energy consumption — green products are everywhere we look.
That’s great, right? Well… on the surface.
Not all that glitters is green. Claiming to be eco-friendly is a modern marketing tactic, and it might have some pretty devastating consequences if we’re not careful about spotting the truth behind the packaging.
Here’s what you need to know about greenwashing, and how to spot it next time you go shopping.
What Is Greenwashing?
Environmentalist Jay Westerveld first coined the term “greenwashing” back in 1986. It’s a play on “whitewashing,” a word widely used in the business world to describe glossing over problematic or scandalous truths (of course, whitewashing also has a racial connotation today).
Greenwashing is the act of putting a pretty green gloss on something that’s actually not sustainable, or even downright harmful. For example, in the mid-80s and early 90s, Chevron ran an extremely successful ad campaign called “People Do.” The series of commercials and print ads showed Chevron employees taking care of sea turtles and other cute animals in their natural habitats.
The purpose of the “People Do” campaign was to brand Chevron as a company that cares for the environment. Of course, Chevron is an oil company with a history of shady practices — not exactly the model of sustainability. But the campaign worked. People began to associate Chevron with nature, animals, and charity.
Today, most savvy consumers would laugh at a campaign like that. But greenwashing is still happening. Brands have just gotten a lot more clever about how they do it. It can be as blatant as a statement like: “75% better for the environment!” (Statistics are easily manipulated and might not mean anything), or as subtle as matte brown packaging, which suggests something is decomposable when it’s really not.
Little marketing tricks convince us that something is sustainable or green, and encourage us to continue buying that product. It’s a smart strategy for the companies— but the companies are the only ones who benefit.
Is It Really A Problem?
It’s tempting to look at all this green packaging and promises of sustainability and wonder: is this really such a bad thing?
Isn’t it good that consumers today are more interested in buying eco-friendly products? Even if the things we’re buying aren’t as green as the companies claim, any small change toward becoming more sustainable is a change for the better, right?
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The reality is that a lot of companies today are putting more funding into their “environmentally-conscious” marketing than into changes that would actually benefit the environment. In other words, the push to look green is detracting from efforts to actually be green.
The other serious problem is that greenwashing makes it a lot harder for us, as consumers, to “vote with our dollar.” When you can’t tell which companies are really taking efforts to protect the environment and which are just lying, you don’t know which companies to support — sadly, brands that put more of their budget into greenwashed marketing tend to get more consumer attention than brands that spend their money on sustainable practices.
Finally, there’s deliberate misdirection. Biodegradable plastics are a great example of this. Claims on plastic products that say they are “100% biodegradable” are misleading — they don’t account for the toxic microplastics that never degrade, or the heavy amounts of petrochemicals used to make the plastic. So, instead of using a reusable shopping bag, misled customers continue using harmful plastic bags, thinking they’re making the right choice for the environment.
How Can You Spot It?
Greenwashing is lying. It deliberately misdirects buyers, takes funding away from actual sustainability efforts, and pushes honestly environmentally-conscious companies out of the spotlight. So, how can we stop it?
Fortunately, accountability is on the rise. Investors are starting to call out big companies for their false or misleading claims. Activists are using journalism and social media to spread the word about corporate greenwashing. There are plenty of helpful resources out there to tell you which brands to avoid.
But it’s not all up to the experts — individual consumers can fight back against greenwashing by refusing to fall for it. Next time you go to the store, keep these tips in mind:
Watch out for trendy language. A lot of companies will incorporate buzzwords like “natural,” “local,” and “kind,” on their packaging, or use blanket statements like “better for the planet.” That use of trendy “green” language gives off a good impression, without making any actual claims about the product.
It’s not special if it’s required by law. Tons of companies will make claims that they have changed their manufacturing process or switched to recyclable plastics — this might not mean that they made those changes to protect the environment. A lot of the time, those are just legal requirements.
Check who’s behind the label. Found a new product with an eco-friendly stamp or certification? Chances are, that’s just a big corporation hiding behind an ecolabel. You can use the global Ecolabel Index to find out who’s actually behind that label, and if it’s legit.
The sooner we all wise up to greenwashing, the easier it will be to hold companies accountable. Let’s all do our part by staying informed and shopping smart — don’t be fooled by the pretty green packaging.