The Sins of Greenwashing: 7 Signs You’re Being Greenwashed by Companies
May 06, 2022
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably trying to do the right thing and buy “greener” and more sustainable products. You’ve probably stood in the supermarket aisle, looked at all the products on the shelves, and grabbed something. Only to get it home and find that it’s not as green as you thought. Does that mean you were greenwashed? Probably!
Let’s find out more about what exactly greenwashing is, why it’s a problem, and what you can look out for.
What is greenwashing?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:
"activities by a company or an organisation that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment."
In other words, greenwashing is a misleading practice.TerraChoice, a Canadian based environmental marketing agency, coined the phrase "the sins of greenwashing". Their 2010 report said that more than 95% of "greener" products were guilty of greenwashing. A more recent analysis showed that greenwashing remains a big issue. 40% of green claims made by companies online were considered to be potentially misleading.
So, let’s talk about some of the things that businesses do that are greenwashing. Plus we'll share some tips and tools that you can use to recognise the seven signs of greenwashing and how to avoid them.
Why is greenwashing a problem?
There are several reasons why greenwashing is a problem. One issue is not getting what you’ve paid for. Companies will spend money and energy persuading you to buy their products. But some businesses aren't always honest about their dealings.
Greenwashing can bring natural, organic, and eco friendly products into disrepute. It will make people think it's all rubbish anyway. It can negatively affect the buying intent for green products across different brands. Consumers exposed to this activity can increase their cynicism and mistrust. It also doesn't encourage companies to make genuine changes.
Signs and examples of greenwashing
1. Making irrelevant claims
There are several greenwashing sins. But let’s start with one issue, and that’s making irrelevant claims. A claim might be true. But it's not always helpful or important for the product you're looking at. Examples of these are:
- Hormone free chicken (when meat in Australia can't have added hormones)
- CFC (Chlorofluorocarbons) free (when it's been outlawed for years)
- Not tested on animals (when it wouldn't usually be anyway)
Misdirection is another sign. It’s when a company seems to say, “look over there!” Companies may tell you one thing that seems "green" while avoiding a discussion about other activities that aren't. Greenwashing examples can include:
- Recyclable materials (but you can't pull them apart to recycle)
- Not tested on animals (but it's made of animal products, for example)
- Made with (which could mean it's got only the tiniest amount of that thing)
- Water is healthy (but it's in a single use plastic bottle, and you could get it free from a tap anyway)
- Publicly proclaiming, quietly lobbying (shouting about good deeds, but lobbying to stop real progress being made)
- Hand made (but unethical workplaces)
To create confusion is another sign of greenwashing. It’s when companies use terms that are deliberately confusing for the consumer.
You’ve probably seen products that say they’re degradable, have 50% more recycled content, or are chemical free.
There’s no such thing as “chemical free” products. Even the water we drink consists of the chemicals hydrogen and oxygen.
Degradable simply means that the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, but it doesn't mean that it disappears completely.
And 50% more recycled content? Well that all depends on how much recycled content there was in the first place, doesn't it?
4. Using vague terms
Using vague terms is another sign. Companies use very broadly or hard to define words that mean nothing. These vague terms feed certain myths about “green products” like chemical free or non toxic. Other examples can include:
- Up to 40% recycled (so 40% would be the best, but it could also be 0% recycled)
- Pure, natural, organic (phrases with no legal meaning)
- Plant based (but could be so highly processed that it's effectively synthetic)
- Eco, green, environmentally friendly (more phrases with no legal meaning)
5. No proof of claims
Showing no proof of any claim is a greenwashing sin as well. Some companies make environmental claims with no evidence to back it up. Some will even make false claims like their product is 40% recycled, or cruelty free without having a Leaping Bunny symbol.
There may be fraudulent use of eco labels, too. An example is companies who say that their wipes are flushable without having certifications for this. It makes it sound eco friendly and biodegradable, even when these supposedly flushable wipes aren’t really flushable, or at least as biodegradable as toilet paper.
6. Hidden tradeoffs
Hidden tradeoffs divert attention by playing up one "green" factor. But they're simply ignoring others or more important factors. Smoking cigarettes labelled as organic doesn't meant that they're any healthier than normal cigarettes - they're still bad for you. “Organic” doesn’t always mean that it’s a safer choice.
Another example of a hidden tradeoff is bottled water in recycled plastic, or “organic" fast fashion.
7. Green packaging
Greenwashing products use packaging that feels "natural". It can also play up supposed eco benefits. It grabs your attention and takes advantage of the impulse buy. Examples of green packaging may show:
- Pictures of fruit or flowers
- Recyclable packaging that is hard to recycle
- Using words like natural and organic
Unless the product has organic certification, an “organic” label on the packaging is simply greenwashing.
How to buy truly green products
There are lots of greenwashing companies that are unethical and harmful to consumers. When a business entity commits greenwashing, it's a "con"-pany, not a com-pany.
Learn to distinguish between what's true and what's not. Use your common sense, and look out for greenwashing signs. Learn how to be sceptical, ask questions, and read more. Look for independent and legitimate environmental certifications, and buy from reputable stores, too.
Do remember, though, that most greenwashing is an exaggeration rather than an outright lie. By choosing greener products, you send a message to companies that you truly want safer and more eco friendly products, and that you're willing to pay for them. Now that's a message that every company wants to hear!