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How to Spot Greenwashing

“Going green” sells, sometimes at the expense of real progress. Here are a few ways you can avoid being misled as conscious consumers.

 

Author: Ching Lam Ip, Programme & Marketing Lead, Garage Society

Cover image source: Quentin Lagache on Unsplash

Would you be happy for pay more for something that was sustainably made, or could help you limit your carbon footprint? If you answered yes, you’re in good company. According to YouGov, close to 60% of shoppers are willing to pay a premium on eco-friendly products. 

 

This is part of a larger shift in Millennial and Gen Z consumer trends, where younger shoppers tend to opt for brands that align with their values. The Green Tech and Sustainability industry alone is projected to be worth 28.9 Billion by 2024. 

 

While this is certainly a step in the right direction, some companies are hopping on the sustainability bandwagon simply to make the most of the moment - misleading well-meaning consumers with little to no action behind buzzwords and empty claims. 

 

Greenwashing can be difficult to spot - after all it’s all about deception and convincing misdirection. Here are a few things to keep in mind the next time you go shopping as a conscious consumer.

 

What is Greenwashing? 

Simply put, greenwashing is the term used to describe when companies make false claims about how environmentally friendly they are. 

 

These companies will often spend more marketing dollars trying to convince consumers that they’re “green”, rather than investing in meaningful sustainable and ethical practices. 

 

The result is glossy green ads that suck up valuable air-time and attention spans, without contributing to the fight against pressing environmental issues. 

 

Coca-Cola Life campaign, promoting the drink as a “green”, eco-friendly product.  It has since been discontinued in 2020.

 

It’s important to note that not all companies that claim to be eco-friendly are engaging in greenwashing! 

 

There are many brands that have put in real effort to be sustainable - making a measurable, positive impact on the environment. There are cases where greenwashing was done without malicious intent - ill-informed marketers who unknowingly spread misinformation. 

 

Examples of Greenwashing You’ve Likely Come Across

 

Volkswagen: False Claims

Perhaps the most classic example of greenwashing. In 2015, it was uncovered that Volkswagen had been cheating on emissions test by rigging their cars with “defeat devices” during testing.

Vehicles that we boldly marketed for their low-emissions features were quickly discovered to be emitting close to 40x the legal limit in the US! 

 

Although there had been signs of funny business since the late 90s, Volkswagen did not admit to cheating until 2015. 

 

H&M: Insincere messaging/ lack of proof

The little green tags on H&M’s Conscious Collection claim that this line of clothing “closes the loop” by using “more sustainable” sources of organic cotton and recycled polyester. 

 


H&M is just one of many fast-fashion brands being called out for greenwashing. ASOS, M&S, are among the other worst offenders.


However, a 2021 study by the Changing Markets Foundation found that the fast-fashion giant uses more fossil fuel-derived synthetic fabrics in its Conscious Collection (72%) compared to its main collection (61%).

That’s not to mention that there is no transparency about what happens to clothes that are donated to their recycling program

 

Starbucks: Selective disclosure/ hidden trade-offs

The movement against single-use plastics reached a peak when everyone started (disproportionately) targeting plastics straws as public enemy number one.

 

Feeling the pressure from eco-conscious consumers, Starbucks introduced a new lid on its cold drinks in 2020, intended to eliminate the need for straws, and therefore cut down on plastic consumption.

​​
Starbucks’ “sippy cup” lids will likely generate more plastic waste than the original straws.


Truth is, the new lids take more plastic to produce compared to the old lid & straw combination, according to Reason Foundation, an American think tank. Even if the new lids are recyclable (which Starbucks claims that they are), only 9% of the world’s plastics are actually recycled, meaning that the net impact on the environment is still negative.

 

Tips to keep in mind to avoid being misled: 

Read environmental marketing claims critically

Look for clear, simple language that explains a product’s positive environmental impact. Extra points if it can clearly list out what portions of the product/ packaging are sustainable, and provides evidence to back this up. 

 

Innisfree came under fire to greenwashing, when it was discovered that their “sustainable” paper bottle just housed a regular plastic bottle. 
 

Be wary of vague, unsubstantiated terms-  “natural”, “green” and “eco-friendly” are likely to be meaningless claims since they aren’t associated with any clear, legal definitions. You should also be careful of exaggerated claims, that seem too good to be true - this generally applies to any products that claim to be 100% anything.

 

Check the ingredients/ composition label

Products that can clearly state what percentage of it is made up of sustainably-sourced materials are likely to be more reliable. For example, a tag on a pair of jeans that says “made from 35% organic cotton” is better than “organic cotton jeans”. 

 

If you’re shopping for cosmetics, try to avoid chemical-based sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate (contributes to coral bleaching), toothpaste and soaps that contain triclosan (harms marine life), and anything that contains palm oil (a leading cause of deforestation). Surprisingly, these ingredients are found in LUSH and the Body Shop products, both leading “ethical” beauty brands

 

As always, do your research before buying! 

One of the first things to consider is a brand’s company ownership. For example, The Body Shop (marketed as “natural” and “cruelty-free”) is owned by L’Oreal, which is in turn 23% owned by Nestlé (known as one the most unethical businesses due to its history of deforestation and human rights violations).

Ethical consumer is a UK non-profit publisher and research association, committed to reporting on ESG issues

 

There are lots of online tools and directories that can help you research an organization’s supply chain, ethical practices, and sustainability efforts. 

  • Ethical Consumer - Shopping guides and ethical ratings for everything from home appliances to sustainable-investment tips.

  • Ethical Made Easy - Australia & NZ based platform with a great directory of fashion, accessory, and beauty brands. 

  • Green Queen - A sustainability-focused media platform based in Hong Kong, covering climate crisis, alt-protein, and zero-waste topics.

  • Good on You - clear, straightforward ratings for thousand of clothing brands.

A note on certifying bodies

Fair Trade and B Corporation labels usually indicate that a brand is taking a step in the right direction. They’re intended to signify that a company meets certain sustainability standards. 

 

 

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the many certifications have no legal status. In the case of the B Lab, they receive an administration fee for every B Corp certification issued. The same goes for the bluesign® certification issued by SGS.

 

Takeaways

  • Greenwashing is when companies and organizations make misleading claims about how environmentally friendly they are, in order to monetize on conscious consumers’ good intentions.

  • It’s a problem because it divers attention spans and air time from initiatives that would make a real, positive impact on pressing climate issues.

  • Greenwashing can include making false claims, vague language, misleading green visuals, and being non-transparent with hidden trade-offs. 

  • To avoid being misled, look for products that:

    • Explain their ESG actions in plain, simple language

    • Clearly state what part of their product is sustainable (eg. manufacturing, packaging, or portions of the product), and can back it up with evidence.

    • Are owned by trusted companies, with transparent ESG policies and supply chains (do your research!)

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