We are living in a world where most people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental issues we are facing. While it’s great that some sustainable companies are doing their best to create a green brand image by taking environmental action and reducing their impact, not all are being quite so honest.
Some companies, which want to appeal to people with increasingly important sustainability values, would rather only pretend to be sustainable, rather than actually making improvements. These organizations employ a shady marketing tactic called greenwashing.
Greenwashing refers to being untruthful about the environmental performance of a product or service and can take several different forms – a practice which can be destructive not just to the greenwashing company, but that can also have impacts on society as a whole.
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
The first big question is, why would companies do this? Why would some company rather deceive their customers than improve their environmental sustainability?
It’s becoming increasingly easy for companies to hide the truth about their supply chains, as they’re becoming more globalized. In the ‘good old days,’ when production was often taking place in the local town or city in the western world, it was much easier for us all to see what a company was doing environmentally.
However, in the 21st century, we’re more disconnected from the production of the items we buy than ever before. Most organizations outsource work to developing countries where their customers cannot see the environmental impact of their production lines and where the legislation regarding environmental protection is also typically lacking.
That way, the origin of the items we buy is reduced to a ‘Made in …’ label and the company can play its own spin on the story of how their products were created.
This is why companies only driven by profit are able to get away with greenwashing. The good news is, however, that there are ways to recognize their practices and avoid falling for their false claims.
What Forms Can Greenwashing Take? The 7 Sins of Greenwashing
There are seven main ways in which greenwashing can be employed, which are labelled as the seven sins of greenwashing. These can occur from large international companies to small local businesses, so don’t forget to be on the lookout no matter how genuine the brand seems to portray itself.
1. Hidden Trade-off
The hidden trade-off, suggests that a product is sustainable based on only one or two attributes, ignoring the others. Usually, this is done to hide some unethical and unsustainable practices in the background.
For example, a company may be positioning itself as sustainable because they offer clothing made from recycled cotton. However, what they may ‘forget’ to mention is that non-organic cotton often requires the heavy use of toxic pesticides and the growing process uses large amounts of water.
2. Lack of Proof
A company committing this sin simply fails to provide proof to back up their claims about their sustainability performance. While this one is easy to spot if you are someone aware of greenwashing, people who have not heard of the concept before can be very easily confused.
An example of this would be a company stating that the farms producing their cotton are not using harmful pesticides, but do not provide any evidence to back such a statement.
Vagueness is another highly employed sin and involves companies making broad statements about their care for the environment, without any exact data.
For example, any products labeled as ‘natural’ could very well be guilty of this sin since the use of this term is not restricted by any regulations – and many naturally occurring substances are even harmful to human health.
While this is not one of the most employed sins of greenwashing, it is one that can easily confuse those who are new to shopping sustainably. It involves stating something that is true, but absolutely irrelevant in the given situation.
For example, this may mean that a European fashion brand is stating that their clothing is free of NPEs (associated with reproductive and developmental issues). However, NPEs have been banned in the EU since 2004!
5. Lesser of Two Evils
A company may be employing this tactic if they are claiming to be more sustainable than another alternative in the same product category.
This could mean labeling fabric softener as a greener alternative, when all fabric softeners are unnecessary and, because of that, unsustainable.
The fibbing strategy involves plain lies and stating something that is not true.
For example, a company may be selling a bamboo travel mug. However, once you click through a carefully hidden link on their website, you may find out that it is actually made of a mix of materials, including plastic.
7. Worshipping False Labels
We all know some of the well-known sustainability labels such as Fairtrade. However, some brands seem to be using labels never heard of before!
Don’t forget to do your research because some of these labels may be completely fake and put on packaging or clothing tags only to make the customer think that the product is endorsed by some scheme – which it is not.
Tips for Spotting Greenwashing
Learning about the different forms greenwashing can take is the best first step towards spotting it – but there are some additional tips to avoid falling for the untruthful practice that we’d like to share with you.
1. Do Your Research
The cornerstone of not falling for false statements is looking up the brand and any claims it is making. Look for proof, especially on third-party websites which have no affiliation with the brand. Often, you can uncover greenwashing within a few minutes this way – or you may need a little more time if the brand is especially elaborate with its deception.
2. Read Past the Fluff
Ignore the typical emotional statements brands tend to embody such as ‘we want to make the world a greener place’ or ‘we believe in protecting our planet’ and cut to the factual information.
If all a brand has to say about their sustainability efforts are a whole lot of empty promises without any substantiation, they’re most likely practicing greenwashing.
3. Don’t Be Misled By Branding
Sometimes, a greenwashing company does all it can to seem like one of the truly sustainable companies in the industry – without actually adopting sustainable practices.
There is a very specific branding many sustainable companies tend to choose: a minimalist aesthetic with a green color scheme. If you see a product in the store with this branding, you’ll likely quickly assume that it’s sustainable. Stop right there – and do your research.
With these tools, it will become easy to spot and avoid the sins of greenwashing some companies are guilty of! Remember that anyone can fall victim to this shady practice, so it’s also important that we talk about it with others to stop it from spreading thanks to increasing awareness.
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