Walk through the grocery store today, and you might be surprised by the number of sustainability-minded brands in sight. Product labels like “pure and natural”, “made with recycled ingredients” and “good for the environment” might look impressive, but do they deliver what they promise?
To find out the facts, it’s important to understand exactly what companies have to gain by “greenwashing” their products- or appearing better for the planet than they are. These brands want your money, and they’re willing to help you see their products in a little greener light if that’s what it takes to get it.
Will you fall for their tricks? Developing a better understanding of greenwashing will help you determine what claims are correct, and which run dangerously false.
What Is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is an aptly named marketing strategy for portraying products or services as more environmentally friendly then they are.
The term is a play on whitewashing, which is defined as glossing over potentially damaging information or evidence of wrongdoings by focusing only on positive details instead. Greenwashing follows the same premise but specifically pertains to the environment.
The classic example of greenwashing are the signs in hotels that ask you to reuse your towels and sheets to ‘help protect the environment by saving water.’ While this practice certainly saves some water, most hotels aren’t watching their resource consumption nearly as carefully when it comes to irrigation or investing in low-flow showerheads. Rather, these signs allow them to both improve their eco-image and coax customers to help them lower their laundry costs.
Once you know what to look for, greenwashing is all around. Think of the oil and gas company advertising their investment in ‘clean energy production’ when these “investments” make up less than one percent of their business expenses.
Another example is paper products. Napkin and toilet paper brands often proclaim that they are “made with recycled materials,” but you’ll have to read the fine print to see that only a minuscule percentage of the paper complies. Likewise, grocery stores will often spend significant amounts of money advertising their “plastic bag recycling program” without investing in ways to eliminate the need for single-use plastic bags in the first place.
A strong sign of greenwashing is that the company involved will benefit from convincing you that they care about the environment. This often means that part of their existing reputation implies the opposite, and they’d prefer to keep that information hidden.
A History Of Greenwashing
“Greenwashing” first entered the public vocabulary in the 1980s as a response to outrageous ad campaigns commissioned by energy companies that focused on their concern for the environment.
The classic example is Chevron’s “People Do” ad campaign, a series of commercials and print ads that highlighted the ways that Chevron employees took care of cute animals like birds, bears, and butterflies. Meanwhile, the company itself was spilling oil in wildlife refuges and violating the EPA Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Even so, these commercials effectively changed public opinion of the company as an environmental polluter, and they earned Chevron the reputation as the gold standard of greenwashing.
By the 1990s, customers were growing increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of the companies they supported, and greenwashing practices began to gain public attention. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1999, and its prevalence has been increasing ever since.
Why do companies play fast and loose with sustainability facts? For one, the practice is highly profitable. A 2015 Neilsen poll showed that consumers are willing to pay between 66-72% more from environmentally sustainable products, allowing brands to tap into a multi-hundred billion dollar industry.
But isn’t any move towards sustainability better for the environment? In truth, greenwashing often does far more damage than good for the planet at large.
The Problem With Greenwashing
It’s easy to assume that greenwashing is a harmless form of competition between companies, but the facts show that the practice is a serious problem.
Not only does rampant greenwashing erode consumer trust in eco-minded advertising, but it dilutes the claims of companies with actual environmentally sustainable practices. Confused customers are less likely to seek out sustainable products, which hurts the planet in the long run.
Likewise, greenwashing encourages customers and the companies themselves to ignore the big picture when it comes to environmental initiatives. A hardware store spending time and money to advertise for their battery recycling program is getting credit for sustainability, even though they sell thousands of products filled with chemicals that pollute the environment. This misdirection makes it easier for companies to shift their customers’ attention from their poor environmental record to the details they prefer to highlight.
Another concern of greenwashing is that it puts the responsibility of change on the end customer (“buy THIS product if you care about the environment”) rather than on the companies causing the problems in the first place. Not only does this practice promote the corporate agenda, but it also keeps the focus of power in the environmental movement with the individual, not the community or a regulatory system.
12 Top Greenwashing Techniques
There’s a lot of money to be made selling to an eco-conscious audience, so spotting evidence of greenwashing is far from easy. Understanding these common techniques will help you separate eco-friendly claims from the truth.
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