When a company claims they’re sustainable – or that their product is sustainable – and their claims turn out to be false, misleading, or unsupported, that company is guilty of greenwashing. The practice has been around for decades, but as the climate crisis worsens, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re supporting truly sustainable brands – not just those who slap an eco-friendly sticker on their packaging.
Greenwashing is particularly common in marketing – for instance, when a company publicises their support for a wilderness conservation program while they deforest natural habitats, or when product packaging claims to use less energy during manufacturing while also using more water. In this sense, a company’s claims might not necessarily be false, but they are putting up a public façade of eco-friendliness despite poor practices behind the scenes. Environmentally conscious consumers might be misled into supporting a company that does more harm than good, which makes claims about sustainability a fraught field for everyone.
When companies lie or mislead consumers, they profiteer off the ongoing climate crisis while contributing to it. Meanwhile, as instances of greenwashing are exposed, consumers become suspicious of any ‘eco-friendly’ packaging, disadvantaging brands who are making strides in genuinely sustainable practices.
So, how can you tell the difference?
In 2007, Terrachoice (acquired by UL) published an analysis of thousands of products on the market and separated types of greenwashing into six categories, with a seventh added following subsequent studies:
1) The Hidden Trade-Off, where one advertised environmental benefit hides negative practices elsewhere in the production chain;
2) No Proof, where environmental claims have no scientific or verified backing;
3) Vagueness, where general terms like ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ go unexplained;
4) Irrelevance, where claims are true but inconsequential (e.g., advertising as CFC-Free, when the use of CFCs is illegal anyway);
5) Worshipping False Labels, where a product gives the impression of non-existent third-party endorsement;
6) Lesser of Two Evils, where a company claims to be better than a competitor, but the environmental impact of the product is still negative; and
7) Fibbing – just straight up lying about how sustainable a company or product is.
Of these six ‘Sins of Greenwashing’, some are more common than others, but being able to recognise them is a great first step to differentiating the greenwashers from the environmentalists.
For instance, if you see a label claiming that a product is 'Eco-Friendly!' but you can’t find any information on how the product is eco-friendly, then it probably isn’t at all! If a company presents statistics making them seem like a sustainable brand but you can’t access any reports that confirm their claims, you’re right to be suspicious.
Ultimately, suspicion – or, more accurately, critical thinking – is your greatest tool in trying to navigate the world of marketing smokescreens. A great rule of thumb is determining how transparent a company is about their products and practices. If you can’t find any information on the behind-the-scenes workings (or if the company is hiding them!), you can take their claims with a handful of salt.
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