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What Is Greenwashing? Here's What It Means and How to Spot It

What is greenwashing, exactly? Here's what greenwashing means, how to spot it, questions to ask brands, fact-checking tips, and more.

Written by
Anna Shuster

More and more data is coming out on conscious consumerism. And, more often than not, people want to be conscious consumers. This is great, but it also opened the door to greenwashing—aka companies taking advantage of this new green wave and advertising "eco-friendly" and "sustainable" products that are anything but.

Since there's currently no way to prevent companies from taking advantage of people and the planet, the key is being able to spot greenwashing as a consumer before you add an item to your cart. Here's everything you should know about greenwashing, from what it is to what to look for during your next Target run.

What Does 'Greenwashing' Mean?

Greenwashing: When an item is falsely depicted as better for the environment compared to its alternative.

Whether intentionality or laziness is at fault, greenwashing targets information-overloaded and time-strapped conscious consumers who may not have the time or access to true and well-researched information. Greenwashing leaves consumers unintentionally contributing to pollution, while the companies economically benefit.

Aren't There Certifications for This?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is an independent government agency in charge of consumer protection. However, when it comes to advertising, they leave much to be desired.

They contain advertising guidelines—rather than actual enforceable advertising regulations—that are flimsy at best and vaguely enforced. They often send open letters to companies that seem to be in violation, but there are only so many they can keep track of. And, at the end of the day, an open letter just isn’t as thorough as we’d like it to be. 

Not only are the FTC’s general guidelines flimsy, but they also haven't updated their guidelines on green marketing since 2012. According to the review schedule, the FTC intends to initiate its review of the Green Guides in 2022, but there's still much to be desired from the perspective of the eco-friendly consumer.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, these guidelines do have a good starting point. They're essentially calling for specificity within the advertisement’s and packaging’s word choice. It hopes to make companies reflect on these questions: What part of the product has to do with the labels you’re putting up? The packaging or all of the products? Which parts of the product? 

However, this isn't enough. That's why we have no other choice but to rely on third-party certifications to regulate and verify the actions companies are taking. Here's a list of just a few third-party organizations (see a larger list here!) that can verify if a brand can truly deliver on its sustainability promises:

  • The Leaping Bunny: This certification means there was no animal testing involved in the making of this product.
  • B Corp Certification: This certification demonstrates a commitment toward providing a safe and moral environment for workers.
  • Fair Trade Certified: This certification lets you know the making of the product involves a living wage and an ethical environment.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard: This certification ensures that from fabric production to manufacturing, the fabric is organic.

Be wary of certain certifications as well. Many certifications simply require that the company just self-identifies and self-evaluates, i.e. holding themselves accountable. This is ineffective because it's easy to make a claim knowing you won’t need to provide evidence. One example of such ineffective certification is the Energy Star label.

How to Spot Greenwashing

Richard Dahl's research paper on greenwashing brought some great tips to determine whether something has been greenwashed or not. One thing he drew upon came from Terrachoice Environmental Marketing, a consultant company that put together "The Seven Sins of Greenwashing."

These are the hallmarks of a company that may not be delivering on its promises:

1. Hidden Trade-Off: Doesn’t acknowledge that even a supposedly sustainable practice can have a negative environmental impact.

2. No Proof: You can’t find evidence of what they are doing to back up their claims or results.

3. Vagueness: They use buzzwords like "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" without elaborating or being able to elaborate.

4. Irrelevance: Does something that every product is required to do according to federal regulations, and relies on the consumer not knowing that it’s already banned.

5. Lesser of Two Evils: Turns sustainability into a competition between other brands, rather than focusing on what they could improve.

6. Fibbing: Embellishing the minimal impacts of their sustainability initiatives, or just lying.

7. False Labels: Puts real-sounding certifications on things that are not verified, such as using the term "eco-preferred."

As you can probably guess by now, these sorts of things happen all the time.

Transparency as a New Value for Businesses

Greenwashing is set up to backfire once you get caught. Like in our day-to-day lives, it’s better to be honest about where you fall short than to lie.

The second consumers find out that a company has engaged in greenwashing, they’ll foster more negative views than if they had just been transparent in the first place. In fact, it can even result in costly class actions that defeat the whole point of appealing to a new audience.

Examples of times where companies were being untruthful:

  • Volkswagen and other designer cars claimed to be run on clean diesel, but later admitted to rigging its cars emissions, hiding the fact that it was releasing pollutants at 65x the level allowed by the EPA. This greenwashed lie got the company in a class action lawsuit where it had to refund over $11 billion dollars.
  • Paper plate company AJM Packaging Corporation labeled itself as recyclable when it was very much not, which cost the company a $450,000 penalty.

Greenwashing comes with a hefty price tag on top of moral compromises. 

How to Fact-Check a Company

Here are some helpful websites to use as fact-checkers to a company’s claims and break down the definitions of different labels (trustworthy vs. not trustworthy):

  • Take a look at Ecolabel Index to understand third party certification guidelines from across the planet or Greener Choices to see each certification graded on how labels vet companies.
  • Architectural Digest put together a great glossary of buzzwords on labels that can throw you off course.
  • Brightly’s top 10 vetted labels, including USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and more.

Without strict enforcement of green guidelines or third-party organizations, it’s up to us as consumers to thoroughly investigate eco-friendly claims.

Questions to Ask Yourself (and Brands)

Can these brands show their receipts? Check by asking these questions when looking at a product:

1. Are they using words like "sustainable" or "eco-friendly" without elaborating? Do they have the means, as research or statistics, to back up their claims and demonstrate their commitment to the environment?

2. Could the words they're using, such as biodegradable, be applied to all parts of the product? For example, is only the product biodegradable—not the packaging it's in?

3. What information is out there about the factory that made this? Who made it? How are they being treated? If a company can’t provide that information, that's often a telltale sign it knows it would look bad because it's often unethical.

4. If buying from an online retailer, do they have the means to elaborate on their carbon offsets?

5. Are they honest, and do they bring up their shortcomings? Like us, no company can be 100% sustainable. Can they discuss what they're working on and what their future goals are in a specific way that shows they're committed?

The Takeaway

The good news is companies can change with external pressure—especially if that pressure threatens their profits. You can apply this pressure through emailing brands, reaching out through social media, or simply avoiding their products until they change their ways. (There are always new brands or products to try!)

It’s time for consumers to take the market by storm and continue to ask questions, because we deserve honest answers. But remember to stay positive! Speaking out and voting with your dollars works. Companies care about their consumers more than anything else, so use that very real power you have to do good.