Consumers around the world are increasingly more concerned about the impact their purchases have on the environment. You can blame it on the pandemic, the growing pollution we have to deal with on a daily basis, or simply our desire to not waste as much of the planet’s resources, but we are all more concerned about our lifestyle’s impact on the environment. The bottom line is that this growing environmental awareness has had both a negative and positive impact on manufacturers and companies in general.
The good news is that we have a growing number of manufacturers and service providers that are implementing sustainable and environmentally friendly practices throughout their marketing strategies. The bad news is that many pretend to do so in order to attract consumers under the false claim of environmentally friendly practices. The second bad news is also known as “greenwashing”.
What is Greenwashing?
Many companies and manufacturers want a piece of the environmentally-conscious consumer pool, but not all of them want to do the necessary adjustments to actually be environmentally friendly. Terms like “eco-friendly”, “all-natural”, “green” or “100% natural” are dragged through the mud by companies that falsely claim to be environmentally friendly when they are not.
The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 and describes the practice used by companies to mislead consumers into believing that their products or services are eco-friendly through marketing strategies, instead of actually implementing eco-friendly practices. This results in consumers buying the products or services, becoming aware of the false advertising, losing their trust in the brand, and the company will lose in the long-run.
While greenwashing can have a positive impact on the company’s profits, it will have a severe negative impact on the brand. Some examples of this are Chevron in the mid-’80s, DuPont in 1991, and more recently Volkswagen in 2015, and more popular brands like McDonalds and Coca Cola. When these companies implemented their greenwashing campaigns they did so with no regard for sustainability and are only interested in their own profits at the expense of the environment and the public.
Ways to Avoid Greenwashed Products
If the names we already mentioned above didn’t give you a hint at the type of companies you can expect greenwashing from, we’ll give you a few examples and tell you what to look out for. There are many tactics used by marketing companies to make something appear sustainable and environmentally friendly, when in fact it isn’t. Besides loosely used terminologies like “100% natural”, “farm fresh”, “cage free”, or “green”, even images are used to mislead consumers. Knowing what to look for is important for the environmentally conscious. The whole idea of living a sustainable lifestyle is to be aware of the impact your life has on the environment, and want to lower it.
When you look at the market analysis completed by GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index, we see how environmental awareness is divided by demographics. The percentage of Gen X consumers that are willing to spend more if the product they purchase comes from a sustainable brand is 64%. That percentage jumps to 75% if we look at millennials, by far the most interested in the environment. Relatively surprising, only 63% of the Gen Z, Zillenials or Zoomers are willing to pay more for a product that is sustainable. On the other extreme, you have about a 50/50 chance to find a Boomer willing to. While 78% of Americans are more likely to buy a product clearly labeled as environmentally friendly, 74% of the population don’t know how they can identify these products.
That’s where knowing which these brands are is important. So we made up a guide to identify greenwashing practices and avoid them.
When Coca Cola went on its greenwashing campaign, they also underwent a rebranding campaign. They replaced red with green and called it a day, because that’s literally all they did. The same goes for McDonalds. If you think about it, any disposal bin in a McDonalds that has one section of recyclables and another for biodegradables is lying, because no food packaging element from McDonalds can be recycled.
Saying that you no longer use plastic straws but the cup is plastic is environmental nonsense. Through this practice companies draw the attention to one attribute of the product that is environmentally-friendly and pretends that the other attributes don’t exist. They claim to be environmentally friendly even if the majority of the company’s practices have a harmful impact on the environment. Similarly, “CFC-free” is a completely irrelevant claim as CFCs have been banned for over 20 years.
There are third party certifications that you can look for on the packaging of the products you purchase. FairTrade and Rainforest Alliance are certifications for food products and can be found on chocolate boxes. I look for them and it’s some of the best chocolate that I’ve ever had. For electronics and appliances you should look for the ENERGY STAR certification. Saying that something is natural or organic is easy. Getting certified, not so much.
Diapers with the image of a baby sitting with a forest in the background; BiC razors packaging that’s partially green; Tide has a green sticker and claims to be safer for the environment; Ziploc bags come in a green colored pack and claim they are the better alternative. These are all greenwashing techniques as diapers are filled with plastics, BiC razors have plastic and limited usage, Tide has chemicals and Ziploc is plastic. The idea shouldn’t be reusable plastics, but no plastics as there are alternatives: washable diapers, razor blades, home-made cleaning products and textile bags.
Have you ever seen unpeeled oranges in plastic packages or bananas wrapped in plastic? The best yet are small candies packed in individual bags that are then packed in a bigger bag. But even things like toothpaste. Why does something that already comes in a tub need a box for? Greenwashing can be that, if they claim to be bio products, or sustainably sourced, local, and so on. Real green packaging should be biodegradable which is why solid shampoos will always be more sustainable than liquid ones. Or, if you buy liquid shampoo, buy refillable containers and shampoo that comes in large biodegradable packaging.
We already mentioned that some words are dragged through the mud, but there’s more to it than that. When these words don’t specify how or why something is 100% natural, bio or eco-friendly, just saying that doesn’t mean it actually is. Generic claims are more often than not, fake. Claims like “50% more recycled '' don't give details, don’t explain more recycle than what, it just uses the word recycle as a trademark. Actually environmentally friendly specifies that a material contains 85% organic cotton and 15% elastane, but claims like “made with organic cotton” with no third-party certification mean nothing.
The public’s growing interest in environmental awareness can leave them vulnerable to the corporate sharks that think only about their profits. The fact that such a small percentage of the public know which products are actually eco-friendly. So we try to increase awareness on these damaging practices, we urge the public to verify the claims they see on products, verify certifications and try to make informed sustainable decisions.
Public awareness on this subject is detrimental for the health of the environment and if we want a clean future we should take that extra second to check if a claim is real or not. By holding these companies accountable with our wallets, we can push them to make the necessary transition for the next generation’s future.