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What is Greenwashing?

Imagine you’re on your regular trip to your favorite big-box retailer. Be it Walmart, Costco, or Target. As you walk through the aisles full of everything you could need, you see lots of labels and packaging appealing to sustainability.

Photo by Hanson Lu via Unsplash

Water bottle labels are full of imagery of mountains and lakes. You might find yourself wanting to spend a little more for laundry detergent in a green-colored bottle labeled as vegan and cruelty-free. You add toothpaste labeled “all-natural” into your shopping cart. You even find yourself in the clothing section thinking about buying a new comfy t-shirt made of organic bamboo and cotton.

You may not have known it, but these are all examples of how you may have fallen victim to the marketing tactic called greenwashing. Greenwashing is all over your favorite big-box retailer’s shelves. In fact, TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, reports that 95 percent of products marketed as “green” are greenwashed.

In this blog post, we will define greenwashing and delve into 2 specific examples of greenwashing to help you better understand the term.

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a type of deceptive marketing where a company misleadingly or falsely promotes a good or service to be environmentally friendly. More investments go into marketing a brand or product to be “green” rather than going into creating sustainable business practices. Due to greenwashing, many consumers fall victim to believing a company is doing more to minimize its environmental impact than it really is.

These compostable cups, typically made of corn starch, frequently just end up in landfills because consumers don’t realize they can’t be recycled. Another issue is that they often can only compost in industrial-scale composting facilities. Many consumers also think it’s okay to litter these cups because of the green labeling. Not quite as green of an alternative to single-use plastics as you may have thought, right? “Biodegradable” and “compostable” are on their way to becoming the next generation of greenwashing. Compostable cups are obviously a step in the right direction, but we, as consumers, need to realize we should avoid single-use products as much as we can.

Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist and researcher, coined the term in 1986 in an essay for a literary magazine commenting on hotel industry practices. The term is a play on the word whitewashing, which Merriam-Webster defines as “glossing over or covering up something that is immoral, illegal, or otherwise bad.” Greenwashing is less frequently called “green sheen.”

“When [brands] claim that ‘we are the most sustainable,’ or ‘the most responsible’ or ‘we are the most transparent,’ those need to be looked into with scrutiny because when brands are self-congratulating themselves in that fashion, that means that they probably have spent a lot of money on the message but very little money on actual certification,” said Céline Semaan in an article about greenwashing for Business of Fashion. Semaan is the founder of Slow Factory Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to improving awareness of sustainability in the fashion industry.

Greenwashing occurs in nearly every economic sector and is regulated in the United States by the Federal Trade Commission. Regardless of FTC regulation, many companies do not comply and continue to mislead consumers. If interested, you can read the FTC’s summary of its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, also called the Green Guides, by clicking here.

The 7 Sins of Greenwashing

These 7 sins are a great way to better understand the means with which you can get greenwashed. TerraChoice, now owned by UL, developed these sins following a 2007 study of environmental claims on products on major retailers’ shelves.

Why Is Greenwashing Important?

The demand for green goods and services is on the rise. An Asia Pulp & Paper 2019 online survey reports that “environmental sustainability is a driving factor for 53 percent of Americans when making any product purchase decision.”

Conscious consumerism is especially apparent with younger consumers. Gen Z is an especially critical cohort because they account for 40 percent of global consumers, according to a 2019 report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey&Company. A 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone study reports that 90 percent of Gen Z consumers believe companies should hold themselves accountable to help social and environmental issues.

Millennials also highly value environmentally sustainable brands. A 2018 report by Business of Fashion and McKinsey&Company notes that 66 percent of global millennial consumers are willing to pay more for goods and services produced by sustainable brands.

This increase in conscious consumerism is obviously positive as it shows a desire to push for reducing both individual and industrial carbon footprints. Yet, companies are exploiting this demand for environmentally-sound products and the “trendiness” of going green by marketing products as sustainable rather than changing their unethical business practices. Not only are they manipulating you to buy a “green” product, they are also typically profiting more from selling these products because they know many consumers are willing to spend more on sustainable products.

Images like this appeal to the trendiness of going green when, in reality, there is nothing environmentally-friendly about air travel. Opt for taking the train when you can; planes can be 20 times worse than trains per transport kilometre according to the European Environment Agency.

If you truly want to be a conscious consumer, knowing about greenwashing is essential to ensure your money is actually going towards companies with sustainable business practices. The following examples of greenwashing occurring will help you better understand the term.

Examples: 2 Case Studies

Beverage Industry: Nestlé Waters Canada Ad (2008)

Sins Violated: No Proof, Hidden Trade-Off, Vagueness

Nestlé Waters Canada in an October 2008 ad in The Globe and Mail newspaper claimed that “bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world” and that “most water bottles avoid landfill sites and are recycled.” These false claims resulted in many Canadian groups filing a complaint that Néstle Waters is misleading consumers.

It is true that Nestlé Waters Canada was working on reducing its environmental impact through actions like making major cuts to its material usage and funding a minimum of 50 percent of every municipal recycling program. The material cuts include reducing plastic by 30 percent, paper labels by 20 percent, and corrugate by 65 percent. These actions were noted in the advertisement. Yet, these sustainable actions mean little when the products they produce, plastic water bottles, encourage consumers to buy more disposable products. It is ironic to market a product as being sustainable when it goes against the mantra of conscious consumerism to “buy slow, buy smart, or don’t buy at all.”

In fact, claiming any consumer packaged good to be the “most environmentally responsible” is inherently false because, by Investopedia’s definition, consumer packaged goods are “items used daily by average consumers that require routine replacement or replenishment.” These goods have to be routinely replaced and are thus wasteful.

Photo by Mr. T in DC via Flicker

Nestlé Waters Canada’s claim that most water bottles are recycled is an example of the “No Proof” sin. Single-use PET plastic bottled water containers have a recycling rate of 33.4 percent, despite the bottles being 100 percent recyclable. PET, polyethylene terephthalate, is the main component of plastic bottles. In the United States, the recycling rate is just 28.9 percent. There is no science-backed evidence for that claim, making it false and misleading.

The advertisement supported claims about its bottles being eco-friendly by focusing on recyclability and reducing packaging. Yes, recycling and reducing waste are obviously very important to lessening our negative environmental impacts. But the company is ignoring other environmentally-harmful issues, such as manufacturing and transportation emissions. This is an example of the “Hidden Trade-Off” sin.

In the ad, the company also called itself a “healthy, eco-friendly choice.” This is extremely vague and lacks supporting evidence. “Eco-friendly” lacks a clear meaning; in what sense is the product eco-friendly? Another example of the great environmental harm Nestlé causes is its extraction of millions of gallons of water from regions undergoing droughts. This drains the regions’ aquifers. Such regions include California, Florida, and British Columbia. Extracting water from an area experiencing drought is obviously not “eco-friendly.”

On the note of funding a minimum of 50 percent of every municipal recycling program, the lawsuit supported how this is incorrect because industry makes no contribution to bottle recycling in a majority of Canadian provinces. This is because PET containers in those provinces are collected only through deposit-return systems which are government, not industry, funded.

Auto Industry: Volkswagen Emissions Scandal (2015)

Sin Violated: Fibbing

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency caught Volkswagen cheating emissions tests. These tests impacted 11 million VW cars worldwide operating with what was called the “defeat device.” VW had computer software in its vehicles that could sense when the vehicle was undergoing a test scenario. The vehicle would respond to a testing scenario by running its engine below the power and performance it would operate with when driving on a road normally. This cheating caused VW engines to emit nitrogen oxide pollutants over 40 times above EPA regulations. At the same time as VW was cheating emissions tests, it was falsely marketing those vehicles as “green” low emissions cars. This is obviously a lie. US vehicle models affected by the scandal and false marketing include the Jetta (2009-2015), Audi A3 (2010-2015), and Touareg (20019-2016), as reported by the EPA’s complaint.

Next Steps

It’s impossible to completely avoid greenwashing, as it occurs so discreetly with so many products. Remember that statistic that 95 percent of “green” products are actually greenwashed. But an important first step you’ve already accomplished is simply learning what greenwashing is so you can better spot it. When you do notice it, hold that brand accountable by spreading awareness about how they greenwash on social media and to friends and family in addition to directly contacting the company to pressure them to change. Prioritize holding brands accountable and demanding change over solely boycotting a brand because cancel culture is not productive. You can also contact the FTC to expose a company greenwashing (although getting a response may take a while). And, of course, research the companies you are buying from (check out Good on You to help with researching). Always keep that mantra “buy slow, buy smart, or don’t buy at all” in mind.

Make sure to subscribe to our newsletter here to stay tuned for future blog posts relating to greenwashing, including more specific tips on how to avoid it. And shopping at Well-Made World is a great way to work to prevent greenwashing. We partner with sustainable and transparent companies. You can even filter for what sustainability issues are most important to you with the products you buy, whether that’s a cruelty-free product or a product created by minorities.

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