Greenwashing: What is it & How do I avoid it?

Most of us are making efforts to be smart consumers. We want to support businesses who are illustrating that they have sustainable practices or are making efforts to become more sustainable.

Our hearts light up when we read words like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘environmentally-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘recyclable’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘nontoxic’ and ‘cruelty-free’. Who can blame us? They are exciting words that appear rather reassuring.

However, what if I were to tell you that some of these claims are simply thrown onto products to fool you smart consumers who want to shop more sustainably? Would you be angry? I bet.

There are many brands out there, taking part in what is known as ‘greenwashing’. They are not being transparent with their customers, rather they are trying to fool them into buying their products by marketing their products as environmentally sound. 

What Is Greenwashing?

You may have guessed already but let’s get a proper definition going. In simple terms, greenwashing is when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally-friendly than on minimising their environmental impact.  

It is simply a deceitful advertising gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands. Some greenwashing is truly unintentional and happens as a result of brands not having enough knowledge regarding what sustainability really is and what it means. 

However, greenwashing is also commonly carried out intentionally through a wide range of PR and marketing efforts. The common denominator that exists amongst all greenwashing is that it is not just putting out misleading information but it is also not helping to further circular economy or sustainable design initiatives. 

As a result of this, environmental problems will remain how they are or they may very well get worse because greenwashing generally misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.

A great example of greenwashing in action is the car giant Volkswagen. They have owned up to cheating emissions tests by fitting a variety of vehicles with a ‘defeat’ device. 

In other words, this is a proprietary software that may detect when it was undergoing an emissions testing, altering the performance in a means to reduce emissions levels while spreading the word about low emissions features of its vehicles in marketing campaigns.

However, according to the BBC, these engines were emitting up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants. 

Buyers may start to wonder if they can believe carmakers’ claims for emissions levels. Photo credit BBC News

What Is Wrong with Greenwashing?

There are many issues when it comes to greenwashing. For one thing, consumers today say that they will spend more money with companies who care about sustainability and this is being taken advantage of. 

It is a problem from a consumer point of view in that we want to buy products that align with our ethics and we think we are until we further investigate and find out that we have given money to companies who are not actually doing anything to stop climate change. 

It is annoying for consumers to have to investigate each and every brand and product to ensure that the product is truly sustainable. As a result, this decreases consumer trust in the brands, even the ones who are truly sustainable.

Besides problems for consumers who want to keep sustainability at the forefront of their minds, these companies that greenwash are not making any efforts to actually make their products green and they are not adopting any practices to help the environment.

Why Does Greenwashing Happen?

You’re probably asking yourself ‘why does greenwashing happen’ because it truly does seem bizarre that such things are allowed to take place. The honest answer to why greenwashing happens is that there is a lack of standards and regulations. 

In addition, unlike the words organic cotton and cruelty free, there is no certificate for ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘environmentally friendly’. 

cruelty-free products

With organic cotton or cruelty-free products, brands must get a certificate to certify that what they are saying is true and they have to go through a variety of steps. This process does not yet exist for the common greenwashing terms. 

How to Avoid Greenwashing

There is nothing worse than when someone really wants to buy a sustainable product and they find out later that the brand is not actually sustainable but was using trendy and catchy words to trick consumers into purchasing their products. 

Here are some tips to help you avoid purchasing greenwashing products. An easy way to avoid greenwashing is to buy fewer things and try and make products at home if you have the supplies and the time. 

For example, a lot of cleaning products contain lots of chemicals that are not only bad for the planet but may be bad for you too if you are breathing it in. An easy DIY for a surface cleaning spray is just mixing vinegar, water and baking soda. 

On the beauty side of things, you could make a face mask from porridge oats and honey. Pinterest and YouTube are two amazing platforms to learn how to make DIY products. 

Next up is shop intentionally and ask questions because the more questions, the more informed you will be. These companies that are greenwashing know that most people will just look at their products for a short two seconds and buy them. Therefore, do not give them what they want. 

They do not want you looking into their claims, so look into them and ask questions to find out how ethically sound the brand really is. Next, take the time to learn about the company in question. You can do this by visiting their website, social media channels and Google them to see what other people or news outlets are saying about them.

The companies who are truly sustainable want to scream it from the rooftops. They are very transparent about it and aim to inform customers about the entire supply chain of the product from when it is created to when it arrives in the consumers hand. If a brand is not transparent about this, the chances are high that they are simply greenwashing. 

In Summary

While some brands focus on becoming more sustainable in order to help the environment other brands slap on claims such as ‘eco-friendly’ simply to win over the consumer without doing any of the hard work involved in making their products truly green. 

There are many issues with greenwashing such as issuing misinformation to consumers and tricking them into purchasing a product and not actually helping the environment as the product suggests. Unfortunately greenwashing happens more than we think and it is down to products not being regulated enough and certifications not being available for the claims these brands are making. 

The good news is there are ways you can avoid purchasing from brands who greenwash. Remember to try and buy less and focus more on DIY products, always ask questions when you shop for sustainable products and find out more about the company before purchasing from them.

Photo Credit: Stock Snap