Greenwashing: What is it and how to avoid it

August 11, 2021

When it comes to what we buy, the vast majority of consumers are interested in making better, more sustainable choices for the planet. In fact, a recent survey by LendingTree reports that 55% of respondents said they were willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, and 41% of millennials reported spending more on eco-friendly products.

Here’s the challenge: it’s not uncommon for brands to claim to be “green” when they aren’t, so making truly eco-friendly choices can be more difficult than you think. The key is being able to spot greenwashing as a consumer before you add an item to your cart.

What is greenwashing, exactly?

Put simply, greenwashing is when a company falsely presents itself, a good, or a service as doing more to protect the environment than it really is. Greenwashing can be found in all kinds of content – like mission statements, marketing, or packaging – from companies of all sizes, including small businesses trying to gain traction and large corporations with recognizable brands. Unfortunately, as more consumers prioritize sustainable goods, greenwashing appears to have become a way to stay relevant without doing the real work.

Why’s it problematic?

Calling shoes “sustainable” or adding an “all natural” label on a face moisturizer’s packaging may seem like no big deal, but greenwashing is problematic for both companies and consumers. It violates trust between consumers and brands, so brands with legitimate sustainability practices are scrutinized alongside deceptive brands. Marketing and PR campaigns that take advantage of well-intentioned consumers looking for sustainable products result in consumers questioning all claims of certification, supply chain responsibility, real sustainability initiatives, and more. Not to mention, it puts the burden on the consumer to research a brand to find out if the claims it’s touting are legitimate.

Unfortunately, greenwashing is hard to spot and even harder to stop because there’s no universal standard for what qualifies. Although the Federal Trade Commission, which exists to protect consumers by preventing “deceptive and unfair business practices through law enforcement, advocacy, and education,” has compiled guidelines on green marketing to help brands understand how to make legitimate environmental claims, there’s no governing body verifying a product’s sustainability claims before it hits the shelves.

How to spot it

If you want to make sure you don’t fall victim to greenwashing, here are some common red flags you can keep an eye out for:

  • “All natural” anything – without a specific attribute, this phrase is a call for concern, make sure to read the fine print
  • “Free of” claims – unless each batch of product is tested individually, trace amounts of harmful ingredients could be present from the manufacturing process
  • “Non-toxic” products – everything has some level of toxicity, it just depends on how much
  • “Clean” beauty products – there is no real definition or regulations on specific criteria so essentially anything can be called “clean” whether proven unsafe or not
  • “Green” fashion brands – Some brands have a “green” collection where the garments in the line have some sustainable attributes, however many times only a small percentage of recycled content is used, or they use the term “green” without backing them up
  • “Biodegradable” cleaning products & clothing – this doesn’t mean chemicals weren’t used in the dyes or finishes of the garment that may be dangerous to the earth, and likewise this doesn’t refer to the bottle or container and only the cleaning formula itself
  • There aren’t any certifications to back up the claims

The solution

While the previously mentioned green guidelines are a nice starting point for brands, consumers often rely on third-party certifications to verify the claims companies are making. Every industry has certification boards that add third party credibility to claims. Some well-known third-party eco-friendly certifications include: ENERGY STAR, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Fair Trade Certified, LEED, and Green Seal. In the paper manufacturing industry for example, the three top certification organizations are the Sustainable Forestry Initiative®, the Forest Stewardship Council®, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

If you’re still unsure or just want more info, don’t be afraid to ask a company questions about their practices to help empower yourself to make more educated purchasing decisions.

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