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Published on May 17th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips


What is Greenwashing (and how do I spot it)?

Have you noticed that “green” is an increasingly popular marketing strategy? As consumer concern over local and global environmental issues grows, companies are eager to show they’re listening and responding. But if so many companies are being as environmentally responsible as they claim, why are we still in this mess? It’s a complicated question, but one simple answer – greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

At its simplest, greenwashing is the environmental equivalent of whitewashing. You know, when you put a thin veneer of white paint on something to make it appear white, but when the paint starts to chip or rub off, everyone can see it’s not white underneath. In the same way, greenwashing is putting a thin veneer of “green” on a company’s marketing, but when you scratch the surface, you can tell that what’s underneath are not truly sustainable practices. Rather, they’re doing business-as-usual and trying to sell you on some greenwashed product.

This can be incredibly frustrating for consumers. Not only do we have to remember to look for socially and environmentally responsible products, and then sometimes pay more for those products, but we have to investigate the legitimacy of the claims on those products as well? Unfortunately, yes. But there are some ways to spot greenwashing so that you can spend your money truly support companies making a positive impact on our planet. While there are a few agencies (such as Greenpeace) working to combat greenwashing, there aren’t a lot of comprehensive tools to help consumers know the difference. The best way to spot greenwashing on the fly – think like a kid and keep asking questions. Here are some questions you can ask to make sure you don’t get greenwashed:

What does that claim actually mean?

One of the most common forms of greenwashing is vagueness. Companies use symbols, words, or even color schemes on product packaging that make remind consumers of nature or “greenness,” whatever that is. But the truth behind the nature-art on the package is that nature-art doesn’t mean anything by itself. Claims like “all natural,” “nature-based,” “plant-based,” or even “organic” (with no certification, which we’ll discuss later) are not regulated in any way and mean nothing about the greenness of the products’ contents, ingredients, manufacturing, or disposability. Pick it up and read the ingredients. See if they detail how their product is green, because most companies that actually are doing an unusually environmentally great thing want to tell you about it in detail.

Is the claim about the product, or the packaging?

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s ultimately important for BOTH product and packaging to be sustainable. But often companies will try to make you think their product is green, recycled, recyclable, etc. when actually just the packaging is recycled, recyclable, or whatever. For example, last week I was looking for some toilet paper with a recycled paper content. Only one package on the shelf had any sort of recycle symbol on it, so I picked it up. But when I read the package, it said: “Package made from 52% bioplastic.” The paper in the package did NOT have any recycled content, and the packaging wasn’t even recycled! They used a familiar symbol, but all they really meant was that the plastic wrapper was made of 48% petroleum and 52% plant plastic. Can I separate that 48% petroleum plastic from the 52% plant plastic and put the plant plastic in my composter and the petroleum plastic in the recycle bin? No. Not actually a very green product.

Conversely, some companies will advertise a very “green” product and have it wrapped in something terrible for the environment. Greening a product is a great place to start, but companies that are serious about greening their whole product line from cradle to grave will be making a visible attempt to green their packaging as well.

Where did this product come from?

This is a broad question, but can prove helpful when you’re comparing two brands or varieties of the same type of product. Consider soaps – all soap is made from oil, some from petroleum oil and some from plant or animal oil. So if you’re opting for a plant-based soap over a petroleum-based soap, ask, “Where did the plant oils come from? Were the plants grown organically, or were petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals used to grow them? Was an area deforested to create the farmland where these plants were grown?” It’s possible that your plant-based soap used more petroleum to produce than the petroleum based soap.

Where will it go when I’m done with it?

Is the product or packaging recyclable, or is it made of multiple layers and materials that can’t be separated? If it’s compostable, does it have to be composted in an industrial composter? I recently saw a statement from the CEO of a popular chain restaurant saying they were “closing the loop” by turning their used plastic gloves into trash bags that would then be used in their stores. It’s good that the plastic is getting another use, but a real “closed loop” indicates that something never ends up in a landfill but gets recycled or reused again and again indefinitely. I’m pretty sure those trash bags are not getting emptied out and remade into gloves again. It’s a good idea, but the “closed loop” language is greenwash.

Have any outside organizations certified this product?

This is one of the quickest references for consumers. Although they’re not perfect, many 3rd party organizations are certifying products independently, making a quick and helpful reference. Look for seals like “USDA Organic,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” “Non GMO Project,” “Fair Trade Certified,” and others to tell you somebody else has done the research on their product and put their stamp of approval on it.

Some certifications on a package of King Arthur Flour

For more information, check out TerraChoice’s Six Sins of Greenwashing

Attribution-free ladder image courtesy of Pixabay

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