Greenwashing Happens Every Day – Here’s What to Look For

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written by:  Anna Shuster

editor's note:

Companies should be held responsible for their actions just as we strive to hold ourselves accountable for our own consumption habits. Read on for tips on how to spot greenwashing and incite change.

More and more data is coming out on conscious consumerism. People more often than not want to be conscious consumers! This is great, but, what if companies take advantage of this new green wave? What if they label themselves as an eco-friendly company or advertise a new sustainable product that in reality isn’t so good for our environment? Surely there would be something to stop them– right? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, unfortunately, the answer is not really.

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.

When Government Regulation Doesn’t Live Up to Expectations: Third-Party Certifications

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 who 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 so it leaves much to be desired from the perspective of the eco-friendly consumer (at least for me!).

Nevertheless, these guidelines, at the end of the day, do have a good starting point. They are 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 is not enough. That is why we have no other choice but to rely on third-party certifications to regulate and verify the actions companies are taking.

Here is a list of just a few third-party organizations (see a larger list here!) that can verify if a brand can truly deliver on their sustainability promises:

  • The Leaping Bunny: This certification means that there was no animal testing involved in the making of this product.
  • B Corp Certification: This is a certification demonstrating a commitment towards providing a safe and moral environment for workers.
  • Fair Trade Certified: Like the B Corp certification, this certification lets you know that the making this 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 is easy to make a claim knowing you won’t have to provide evidence. One example of such ineffective certification is the Energy Star label.

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):

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

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, who put together what they dubbed to be “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 defeats 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 them in a class action lawsuit where they had to refund over $11 billion dollars.
  • Paper plate company AJM Packaging Corporation labeled themselves as recyclable when they very much were not. It cost them a $450K penalty.

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

Questions to Ask Yourself & Brands

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

  • 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?
  • Could the words they are using, such as biodegradable, be applied to all parts of the product? For example, is only the product biodegradable but not the packaging it is in?
  • 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 is often a telltale sign that they know it would look bad because it is often unethical.
  • If buying from an online retailer, do they have the means to elaborate on their carbon offsets?
  • Are they honest and bring up their shortcomings? Like us, no company can be 100% sustainable. Can they discuss what they are working on and what their future goals are in a specific way that shows they are committed?

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 interrogate them because we deserve an honest one.

But try to stay positive! The good news is that 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.

written by:  Anna Shuster

editor's note:

Companies should be held responsible for their actions just as we strive to hold ourselves accountable for our own consumption habits. Read on for tips on how to spot greenwashing and incite change.

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