Greenwashing refers to the deceptive branding of a product or organisation as environmentally friendly. It is present in every industry, including energy firms, food production, fashion companies, and governments. Corporate and political greenwashing can take the form of blatant spin – for example, this brand’s ‘Hello, I’m Paper Bottle’ was a plastic bottle with a cardboard coating. Increasingly, greenwashing is taking more subtle forms, noticeable only to consumers with a keen eye.
Why is Greenwashing a Serious Problem?
As Global Witness explains, companies need a social license to operate. As we become more socially conscious, brands try tirelessly to depict themselves ‘as progressive changemakers who care about their ‘values’ rather than just making money.’ For instance, expressing support for Black Lives Matter or adopting a rainbow-coloured logo in Pride Month without addressing racism or homophobia within their company practices. It’s about giving an impression of an ethically conscious company rather than becoming one.
Fossil fuel companies are among the worst offenders. You may recently have seen adverts by various oil and gas corporations boasting of their commitment to developing renewable energy sources. It creates the appearance of an environmentally friendly brand when renewables make up a tiny percentage of their business. Greenwashing is not limited to just the energy sector. Many businesses rely on spin tactics to paint themselves as a force for ecological good and rely on these marketing campaigns as carte blanche to continue their destructive ways.
A recent analysis of over 500 websites by the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network found that almost 40% of eco-friendly claims could be misleading customers. Greenwashing sends our progress in the wrong direction. Customers may feel confident that their purchase performs some kind of ecological good when they may be inadvertently damaging the environment. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) believes that this abuse of trust is ‘bad for green businesses, bad for consumers, and bad for the environment.’
How Consumers Can Avoid Greenwashing
Greenwashing is dependent on vague terminology and ambiguous claims. Language such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘natural’, and ‘clean’ are not strictly regulated labels. Companies do not have to rigorously prove that these claims are accurate, meaning that they are often empty promises. Some marketing techniques to be aware of are:
- Packaging that is literally green in colour, or maybe decorated with flowers and plants to imply some form of ecological good.
- Labelling a product as ‘natural’, ‘sustainable, or ‘recycled’ when only some of the ingredients or materials fit this description. For instance, many ‘wool’ jumpers are made from only 20% wool. It is also significantly harder, often impossible, to recycle clothes made from a blend of fabrics.
- Making pledges such as tree planting or carbon offsetting without addressing their fundamental issues that are damaging the planet.
- Similarly, be aware that many retailers and companies sell eco-friendly products while the majority of their business model relies on ecological harm, as with fast-fashion retailers’ ‘conscious’ ranges.
Unfortunately, the increasingly sophisticated nature of greenwashing makes it harder for consumers to identify misleading claims without additional research, which is not practical if you are shopping in a hurry. Here are some general tips to help you avoid misleading marketing:
- Find brands that you trust. If things like sustainability, worker conditions, and organic ingredients are important to you, identify brands that align with these values.
- Look for ecolabels. The previous step becomes easier if you can see a trusted certification on the product or company. For instance: The Global Organic Textile Standard, Soil Association Organic Standard, or B Corp companies, required to be socially and environmentally responsible – in their supply chain materials, treatment of the environment and local communities, and employee care. Here is a list of UK eco-labels and an evaluation of their promises in this article.
- Look at the small print. It only takes a few seconds! If a shirt has a massive, eye-catching ‘I’m organic’ tag, take a second to look at the composition label. You may discover that the materials are only 10% organic, or you may be pleasantly surprised! (Organic cotton uses less water and healthy soils that are free of fossil-fuel-based fertilisers, helping local farmers, communities, and the planet.)
- Look at the packaging. If a food, cleaning, or cosmetic product is claiming to be sustainable, then why is it encased in layers of unrecyclable packaging?
- Shop local, shop small, shop less. Using this general principle is the simplest way consumers can make sustainable choices. However, this is not always the case nor possible.
- Be critical consumers. Do not underestimate your power as a customer. Take initiatives like Amazon’s Climate Pledge and accompanying emotive advert with a pinch of salt. Though we all appreciate a move to net-zero emissions, Amazon and many of The Climate Pledge signatories are addressing a problem that they helped to create, and are using it as a marketing ploy. It is worth noting that the pledge is not legally binding, and there are no consequences for those that break their promise.
Most importantly, understand that this is a process and that it is impossible to achieve perfection. It is exhausting for consumers to navigate through a sea of PR and spin to feel good about their purchases! Just by reading this article, you have taken a positive step forward. You may have seen the idea of becoming ‘1% better each day’ plastered over the internet, but its sentiment rings true. No one becomes the ideal consumer overnight, or ever. Educating yourself on a small topic, making a more conscious purchase, or sometimes not purchasing anything at all contributes to fundamental change.
How Businesses Can Avoid Greenwashing
Over half of UK shoppers take a brand’s eco-credentials into account when making purchase decisions, according to YouGov research. This trend is mirrored globally, as around half of respondents to PwC’s June 2021 Global Consumer Insights Survey said they were more eco-friendly than they were six months ago. It is vital that brands maintain their integrity and not use the climate emergency as a marketing tactic – for the sake of the planet and consumer trust.
Environmental claims are facing greater legal scrutiny in the UK. The CMA released a Green Claims Code in September in response to greenwashing concerns. There is a checklist for companies and a guide for shoppers to avoid misleading claims. From January 2022, the CMA will review misleading green claims. Breaching the code equates to breaking consumer law, and companies can be taken to court. Taking the Green Claims Code and advice from the business world into account, here are some steps companies should be taking to avoid greenwashing:
- Demonstrate your clear sustainability benefit. Avoid jargon and misleading language. For instance, Fashion United advises clothing brands to make their claims clear and easy to understand – clearly label a product as made from 75% organic cotton rather than allowing them to believe it is fully organic.
- Avoid vague terminology that you can’t back up. Under the Green Claims Code, general claims such as ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’ have to reflect the entire life cycle of the product, service, or brand.
- Check regularly that your sustainability claims are up-to-date.
- Consider the entire lifecycle of your services and products. You may carbon offset your delivery services but use synthetic fibres that harm the planet and local communities. You can celebrate your wins while acknowledging any shortcomings. That is how you maintain integrity.
- Assess your visual claims – are they misleading, or do they truly represent your product? Is the colour green or pictures of plants giving a misleading impression about your product? Conversely, you should make use of logos and labels that are relevant to your brand, and any certifications or standards you are signed up to.
Be transparent: The obvious answer. Your business should be honest and specific about your current sustainability practices and goals. Demonstrate the precise, measurable ways in which you are committed to building an environmentally friendly brand. Clothing brands Noah and Ganni have even gone as far as highlighting their shortcomings to consumers. The bare-faced honesty laid out in Ganni’s ‘Why We’re Not A Sustainable Brand’ post received praise from the public, demonstrating the power of ‘Mea Culpa’ marketing when customers are getting tired of being lied to.