With growing concern about climate change and the health of our environment, many consumers have chosen to support eco-friendly and sustainable product alternatives while doing their shopping. As a result, many companies have adopted an advertising technique coined as “greenwashing” to attract more buyers from this demographic.
Over the last decade or so, people have become increasingly aware of their responsibility to help the Earth. One of the biggest ways consumers can reduce their environmental impact is to support green businesses that make sustainability a primary goal in their mission statement. Many consumers have become more conscious of the products they purchase by considering the product’s effects on the environment, how it was produced, and what will happen once its purpose has been fulfilled.
With this growing wave of support for sustainable products, many companies have seen the business potential in creating “green” products. As a result, a new marketing scheme emerged in what has come to be known as “greenwashing.”
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when a group, company, or person claims or advertises that their actions or products are green and environmentally friendly, but in reality, they are claiming this purely for financial gain.
Joe Hobbs, an organizer and an activist, knows about greenwashing all too well. As part of the movement “Fridays for Future,” Hobbs aims to end the climate crisis and inspire people to take action in support of sustainability initiatives. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to achieve these goals when greenwashing is prevalent in companies that Hobbs works with every day.
When approached with partnership inquiries, Hobbs must separate good intentions from not-so-good intentions. Oftentimes, he encounters clear examples of greenwashing within these companies.
“It is very clear that the partnership isn’t to help the environment, the partnership is to help them with their public image,” says Hobbs. “We see this with a lot of companies nowadays who say, ‘we are going sustainable, go ahead and buy our products,’ [but] they’re doing it just to get more money spent on their products rather than for the right reasons.”
According to a study conducted by the European Commission, 42 percent of online advertisements for green and eco-friendly products were false or misleading. Design, colors, key phrases, irrelevant claims, and deceptive statistics are all strategies that companies use to lure in consumers by leading them to believe that the product is better for the Earth. You may be familiar with phrases such as natural, healthy, chemical-free, recyclable, compostable, etc. Oftentimes, these are unsubstantiated claims that have little to no evidence to support them.
Hobbs provides an example of greenwashing in a company we are all familiar with—Shell Oil, formally known as Royal Dutch Shell.
“Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies, rebranded itself as Shell Energy…claiming to be renewable and sustainable. That is a perfect representation of greenwashing because in no world could an oil company be sustainable or helpful for the environment.”
With the future of energy heading away from fossil fuels, big oil companies know they are losing the support of the world market. What better way to gain back business than by claiming to become a net-zero emissions company?
As Hobbs says, “The action Shell should take if they really want to become sustainable is to stop all oil production right now.”
With no regulations on greenwashing, it is difficult to hold companies accountable for their misleading advertising tactics; however, there are a few things we can do as consumers to stand up for our environment against greenwashing companies.
“The best thing a consumer can do is call the company out for [greenwashing], whether it be on social media or sending them an email,” says Hobbs. “Or just don’t shop with them.”
There are a few key points to look out for when trying to separate real sustainable products from their greenwashing imposters. To recognize and avoid greenwashing, be aware of the following greenwashing tactics:
Be Aware of Misleading Designs and Colors
Companies will make the packaging of their product appear as natural as possible, using Earth-tone colors, like greens, blues, and browns. Pretty pictures of animals and nature may also be used to convey a sense of unity with the Earth. Dawn dish soap, for example, displays pictures of ducks on their bottles with the slogan, “Dawn helps save wildlife.” While Dawn soap has been used to help animals affected by oil spills, the product itself is contributing to the oil problem with its plastic packaging.
Additionally, one of its antibacterial agents, Triclosan, has been declared toxic to aquatic life and birds and has since been banned by the FDA. The packaging may look sustainable or environmentally-friendly, but it is important to look at how the product is sourced, how it is packaged, and what it is actually made of.
Verify Unsupported Claims
Key phrases that may lead consumers to believe a product is sustainable include things such as “100% natural,” “eco-friendly,” and “recyclable.” These are unregulated terms that could be written on any product. For example, a product may technically be recyclable, but only in a specialized recycling facility that most consumers do not have access to in their local government-run recycling programs. To confirm the validity of key terms like these, look for information that supports these statements and be cautious of products that make broad claims without the facts or data to support them.
Look Out For Unofficial seals
Adding seals or certifications onto products makes a company’s claims more official and certifies that the information presented is true. However, certain design strategies allow the creation of labels that appear to be official, but are actually fake logos. When looking to buy sustainable products, check that seals and certifications are from an official and reputable third-party organization. B-certified Corporations, Fairtrade certifications, Green Seal, Forest Stewardship Council, and Rainforest Alliance are examples of a few third-party certifications that can be trusted.