We are living in a generation that is the most advanced and historically diverse, yet we are endowed with the gift of climate change, that is depleting the world’s chance of survival day by day. Millennials and Gen Z understand their duty in taking responsibility and doing their part, by being mindful about the impact of their actions, choices, and habits in this age of extreme consumption. We are actively shifting our consumer behaviors and living preferences to favor socially and environmentally responsible products. With more and more companies promoting “green” and “eco-friendly” products, how can we be sure that these actually represent a change in companies’ environmental impacts and not just a marketing ploy, aka greenwashing?
What is greenwashing, you ask?
Well, according to Cambridge Dictionary, they define greenwashing as a technique designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”, which is oftentimes executed through the company’s marketing and advertising.
Greenwashing is all about misdirection.
Companies who use this technique tend to invest more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, than actually taking action to ensure sustainable business practices. This technique is used to exaggerate their environmental claims to intentionally deceive consumers in an attempt to capitalize off of the growing demand for environmentally responsible products.
Marketing and advertising are invaluable aspects within consumer and business relationships. It holds the potential for brands and companies to share their inspiring stories and missions to people in an impactful way, which is all the reason why so many people - including myself - have developed a passion for the industry. However, with every yin there is a yang.
Although a lot of greenwashing marketing is done on purpose as they are backed by vague claims, some companies fall into this mistake unintentionally from the lack of research and understanding of what sustainability truly entails.
As consumers and adults, we have the power to make our own choices and see through B.S. claims by educating ourselves and actively approaching products with a grain of salt.
How do I spot signs of greenwashing?
Well, we now know what it is, we just need to put on our “B.S. detecting” lens.
In 2007, TerraChoice created a list of tips to help consumers identify whether or not products are making misleading environmental claims, called “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing”:
Sin of the hidden trade-off
A claim that a product is sustainable based on a narrow set of traits without acknowledging bigger environmental issues.
Sin of no proof
A claim that is not supported by reliable sources or information.
Sin of vagueness
A claim that is not defined and is likely to be misunderstood by consumers.
Sin of worshiping false labels
A product giving an impression of a third-party endorsement, when in reality, it does not.
Sin of irrelevance
A claim that may be true but is not helpful for consumers seeking sustainable products.
Sin of lesser of two evils
A claim that is true within a category but neglects the environmental effects the category can have as a whole.
Sin of fibbing
A claim that is just false. Period.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission put together a helpful guide on how to avoid greenwashing. From them, here are some common broad claims that are helpful to keep in mind, as these can be problematic and raise concerns over time:
“Environmentally friendly” or “environmentally safe”
“Renewable” or “green energy”
Finally, an effective and beneficial habit is to look into companies' business structures and practices. Search up their annual reports, their vertical integrations/supply chains, their partners, their initiatives, their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) reports, and the list can go on.
The more you know, the better.