cows on field greenwashing activies

How to spot Greenwashing

More and more people are deciding to make informed purchases that respect the environment and preserve its resources. But despite the fact that green companies are numerous, there are many other companies that instead exploit sustainability to their advantage.

In our consumption-based society, it’s always smart to doubt when you hear organizations and companies making claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the journey to save the planet Heart.

Why? Well, because of the so-called “greenwashing”.

When companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as ‘green’ rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.

Leyla Acaroglu

The origin

This term was coined in the late 1980s, by the environmentalist Jay Westervel, and became of common use when some of the most polluting American companies (to name a few: Chevron, Dupont, Bechtel) tried to pretend to be eco-friendly, without really being such.

To get an idea, you can find below the commercial of Chevron, that while running its ads on Television was violating the clean air act, the clean water act, and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.

The word greenwashing is the result of the combination of two words: ‘green’, that is green in ecological terms, and ‘whitewashing’, the activity of hiding unpleasant facts; therefore, through this combination, we want to indicate the tendency of many companies to proclaim alleged sustainable behaviours in order to obtain a greater profit by attracting the attention of that group of consumers who are attentive to the health of the planet.

And while some greenwashing is unintentional and the results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is (go to check out the article What the sustainability? from our dear friend Hanna Rasper), it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of marketing and PR efforts.

One of the consequences of this type of activity is that it strongly hinders and does not foster sustainable design or circular economy initiatives and that the consumer, faced with these mystifications, feels deceived and loses faith in any form of sustainable behaviour. Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.

Below some examples

At the time being, there are countless case studies across all industries that show how not to do sustainability by discovering more examples of greenwashing — like the fossil fuel giant BP, who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations, to Coke, who has been accused of greenwashing through ‘natural’ sugar claims that it started marketing as a way to attract more health-conscious consumers, to Fiji water (check the video below) who became the target of a lawsuit for deceptively marketing itself as “carbon-negative”.

Talking of fashion, we have the example of the fast-fashion brand H&M with its “Conscious collection” of 2019 (read here for more).

How can we protect ourselves?

We are approaching a critical time in which more organizations and individuals are adopting sustainable and zero waste living practices. Therefore, it is important to be able to quickly identify instances of greenwashing and replace them with truly sustainable practices.

On the Internet, it is possible to consult numerous sites that were created specifically with the aim of helping consumers to identify those companies that are truly ‘green’ and those that carry out greenwashing activities.

Greenwashing Index

There was the “Greenwashing Index” and the site GoodGuide which allowed everyone to write an evaluation of a product or a company and publish it to promote information sharing.

Stopgreenwash

On the basis of the same system there was a site created by Greenpeace where you could find a shortlist of what are the most frequent greenwashing activities of a company, for example:

  • Focusing attention on a product or a particular “green” company policy, when in reality the main objective is not sustainable;
  • Using targeted advertising and marketing actions to magnify a small environmental result and diverting attention from all other decidedly unsustainable results;
  • Presenting the company as “green” but carrying out lobbying operations against existing or pending environmental laws;
  • Advertising a “green” result as if it were a choice desired by the company when instead it is the result of a regulatory tax.

The sins of greenwashing

TerraChoice has created the site “The sins of greenwashing” which makes a list of the seven deadly sins committed by those who seek to make a product greener:

  • Hidden trade-off: that is to say that a product is “green” based only on a restricted set of attributes, thus shifting attention from others that have important environmental implications;
  • No Proof: or an environmental claim that cannot be supported by easily accessible support information or by reliable third party certification;
  • Fibbing: falsehoods, or environmental claims that are simply false;
  • Vagueness: when the indications on the characteristics of the product are so poorly defined or so generic that their true meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer;
  • False label: in other words, a product that, through words or images, boasts third-party certifications that are actually non-existent or counterfeit;
  • Irrelevance: or environmental statements that can be truthful, but are not important or useful for consumers looking for environmentally preferable products;
  • Lesser of two evils: an indication that may be true for the specific product category, but which risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental effects of the category as a whole.
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Greenwashing — when a brand’s marketing around #sustainability runs counter to its business practices — is rampant in fashion. Buzzwords like “eco-friendly” and “conscious” litter marketing messages and advertisements while offering no practical meaning to consumers. To be fair, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition of sustainability, leaving room for brands to either fall into the #greenwashing trap or exploit the vagueness surrounding it. It also allows brands to tout red herrings as progress while concealing problem areas.⁠ ⁠ Greenwashing in #fashion isn’t a new phenomenon, although it spreads more quickly by virtue of the internet and its many social media platforms. In 2007, the group TerraChoice published the Six Sins of Greenwashing, most of which are still applicable today: The Sin of Vagueness, in which a brand is purposely non-specific about its operations or materials; The Sin of Lesser Evils, in which a do-good label is slapped onto an inherently environmentally-unfriendly product (like, “sustainable denim,” where denim is among the most resource-intensive garments to produce); or The Sin of Irrelevance, where a company may claim to avoid using a material or practice that is already illegal or non-standard.⁠ ⁠ There are many ways that brands fall prey to greenwashing, however well-intentioned they may be. In some of the more insidious cases, brands might attempt to beguile consumers with misleading or unverifiable claims, if not altogether obfuscating their supply chain practices. But without a truly comprehensive approach to impact that includes #environmental, labour and social change, the marketing itself rings hollow. While brands face a litany of compromises on the path towards sustainability, it's how they deal with them that determines how consumers and activists will judge them in kind.⁠ ⁠ Read Alexandra Mondalek’s full story from our new digital Special Edition, “Can Fashion Clean Up Its Act?” on businessoffashion.com [Link in bio]

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We can be the change!

As consumers, we have now the power to see through the greenwashing and calling bullshit when/where it is due. We should use our instinct, and dig deeper when we see sustainability claims.

Consider the entire picture of that product or brand, how its sustainability initiative fits into its larger offerings and operations, if the claim is actually eco-friendly, and if the company or product has any certifications. Always dig a layer deeper to see where things stand. Call the brands that you love and tell them to work better with regard to sustainability. Support small, local brands where you can get to know the makers and understand their motives.

In the end, laws and regulations are fundamental to protect the consumer and to prevent companies from making a profit based on a deception, but it is essential that the consumer is the first to be attentive and informed. Because the consumer is the one who, through the demand for goods and the purchases, can influence the market and can be responsible for a concrete change.

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