The climate crisis has become a real trendy phenomenon for brands to piggyback on. And believe it or not, not every brand is legitimately trying to reduce their impact.
Human activities have caused many devastating effects on our Earth. While the situation looks more dire by the day, many believe it’s not too late to restore our beloved Blue Planet. In a time when many companies are making serious and dedicated efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, there are those taking advantage of this ethical initiative. There are irresponsible companies claiming they are environmentally friendly but these claims are unsubstantiated and not officially proven nor recognized.
These companies don’t hesitate to take advantage of the growing demand of environmentally conscious consumers. Even though more consumers are making conscious decisions to choose environmentally-friendly products, not every consumer is fully aware or educated enough on what are the standard and legal requirements for a product to be certified as natural, eco-friendly or sustainable.
*realizes that our logo is green*
Companies that make false claims or provide misleading information about how their products are environmentally friendly are greenwashing—a term coined in 1986 by Jay Westerveld.
Westerveld was an environmentalist who wrote an essay condemning a hotel’s claim of reusing towels as part of their environmental strategy when it was a pure cost-saving measure by the hotel.
Greenwashing is the act of glossing over bad behavior to make something appear more environmentally friendlier than it really is. It’s an attempt to capitalize on the increasing demand for environmentally-friendly products. Since many consumers nowadays are more educated and aware of the importance and need of environmentally-friendly products, some companies leverage on this demand but only for the sake of profit.
Irresponsible companies tried many different attempts at greenwashing so consumers would buy into their claims. Commonly, some companies choose to rebrand and rename their products or themselves, claiming to champion the environment. This includes renaming, rebranding, and/or repackaging their products with claims of how the “new” version of the products is more natural, chemical-free, organic, etc., than competing brands.
If you’re serious about making real changes in conserving and restoring the environment, you need to make sure that your all-natural products are the real deal. Keep in mind that there are companies that will not hesitate to claim their products are environmentally friendly.
SHEIN makes 27,000 'styles' every year...green branding doesn't equal green practices.
Now that you’re aware of greenwashing, let’s take a look at some of the most common examples of this practice. Some of these examples may surprise you because irresponsible companies are able to disguise it so well through their advertisements and marketing stints.
However, the more you recognize these examples of greenwashing, the easier for you to detect them in the future and help combat this unethical practice. These are some of the most common forms of greenwashing.
Quick note: these examples may signal a brand is greenwashing, but you'll probably need to do more digging to be sure. These claims are just easy to make and hard to prove.
All-natural: Experts generally agree that all natural anything doesn’t mean anything because there is no true definition and it doesn’t shed any light on the product. If a manufacturer doesn’t mention a specific attribute or give exact information of these natural ingredients, this term is greenwashing.
Free of -: This is a common claim made by companies who want to appear environmentally friendly and want consumers to know that their products don’t contain harmful substances. The typical products that carry this claim are personal care, cosmetics, and cleaning products. Since it takes many testings to confirm that the substances don’t contain harmful ingredients, many greenwashed products don’t actually contain these ingredients in the first place. It’s just empty words to make a product sound more natural and eco-friendly.
Clean products: This is one of greenwashing's favorite words. It purports that a product doesn’t contain any unsafe or controversial ingredients. However, since many experts agreed that there are no regulations or exact definitions on areas of how a product can be considered clean, any product can be considered clean.
Recyclable: It’s not common for consumers to make the mistake of thinking you can recycle any type of plastic. Claiming a product is recyclable can be a form of greenwashing if any part of the ingredients can’t be recycled. Some manufacturers place the label on the packaging of a product, for example the plastic packaging of a shower curtain. Since it’s not fully transparent and clear whether the packaging or the shower curtain is recyclable, this can be considered misleading and deceptive and thus greenwashed.
More natural ingredients or recyclable content: You may have seen claims such as “more than 50% natural ingredients” or “made with more than 50% recyclable content” before. Manufacturers made this claim to make their products sound more natural and more eco-friendly. In truth, the manufacturers may have only increased the natural or recyclable ingredients by 3% or 4%. Even though the manufacturer did increase the amount, it can still give a false impression about how a product contains more natural ingredients than it really does.
Biodegradable: Many environmentally conscious consumers choose biodegradable products and this has led many manufacturers to put this claim on their packaging or products. However, not every manufacturer will produce true biodegradable products that will degrade in time. It’s not uncommon for these false biodegradable products to just simply break down into smaller pieces and not fully degrade.
Green fashion: It was a trend at one point for clothing companies to claim that their clothing lines are green fashion. Green fashion is designed to be environmentally friendly where not only the clothes are made from sustainable materials, but the processes of producing the clothes are also economically sound. It takes a lot of effort to ensure every process and material in apparel is sustainable and green. Due to this, not every clothing manufacturer will invest the time and effort to do it. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to use only a very small amount of natural or recyclable content in their clothes but claim that their clothing lines are green fashion.
Non-GMO: There was a time where many consumers were worried about purchasing foodstuff because of all the news on GMO natural produce. GMO means genetically modified organism, a component used in food to produce larger or sweeter fruits. Nevertheless, there is no scientific consensus on the safety and effects of GMOs on our health. Fresh produce companies sometimes simply place the term Non-GMO on their products to convince consumers. To ensure your foodstuff doesn’t contain any GMO, you should look for a third-party logo like the Non-GMO Verified Project.
Hormone-free meat: By law, it’s illegal to inject hormones into pigs, bison, and chickens. If you see this term on the packaging of the chicken you’re about to buy, there is nothing remarkable about this because these companies are simply following the law. If you want hormone-free meat, you can make sure that your red meat doesn’t contain any hormone because it’s still legal to use steroid hormones with cows and sheep.
As you can see, greenwashing can come in many forms. It is up to us to be mindful and aware of the ways companies can find to greenwash products just so they can make profit. In the efforts of being environmentally conscious we must be aware of every aspect of natural and eco-friendly products.
It’s not just about what the ingredients of the products are, it’s also about the packaging, the manufacturing processes of the products as well as the economic impact the companies make. It’s understandable that it may seem as though there are many things to consider and remember when choosing environmentally-friendly products, but it’s worth remembering that the lack of awareness is what irresponsible companies rely on to sell their products.
So, how can you identify companies that are greenwashing? There are thousands of companies in the US and Canada alone that claim to have green products. Since there has been an increasing number of companies that are greenwashing, there are several tips that can help you identify greenwashing.
Commonly known as the Seven Sins of Greenwashing, these tips can help you identify this unethical practice and avoid being a customer of companies who practice this.
1. Hidden Trade-Off - Some companies only apply one small set of environmentally-friendly attributes and yet label their products as highly environmentally friendly. It takes many steps to be considered as a fully environmentally friendly company. So don’t be too quick to believe any products carrying environmentally friendly labels.
2. No Proof - Anyone can say they have green products or their company is committed to the environment. It’s one thing to make this effort a business value, but it’s a completely different thing to have a product that is actually environmentally friendly. Companies that claim their products are environmentally friendly need to back this claim with easily accessible data, evidence, and/or certifications consumers to verify.
3. Vagueness - A company that is fully committed to the environment will be transparent with their customers. These companies want to let the consumers know what their efforts are and how they are contributing towards the conservation of the environment. Terms that are too broad is not a good sign because many companies try to disguise their products as environmentally friendly by using terms that are vague and poorly defined.
4. Irrelevance - Some companies choose to use terms that are technically true but have no relevance to the quality and standard of the products. They want to make an impression on consumers with these technical terms, but upon closer inspection, these terms have no bearing on the products. For example, a company claims their products are CFC-free and therefore eco-friendly. But since the use of this chemical has been banned since 2010, any company stating their products are CFCs free is unremarkable. For greenwashing companies, technical terms are only used to impress consumers.
5. Lesser of Two Evils - Companies that are in an environmentally unfriendly sector often resort to this claim. They often label their products as the greener option than their competitions when the product is in a category that is, as a whole, environmentally unfriendly.
6. Worshipping False Labels - At times, there’s nothing irresponsible companies won’t do. This includes the use of fake or irrelevant certifications. These companies rely on consumers’ need for third-party endorsement to believe a product is genuinely environmentally friendly. It doesn’t hurt to be extra careful when you see products carrying third-party endorsement labels. Genuine certifications will have ample content you can find online like ours: WRAP and FairWear.
7. Fibbing - This is straight up lying. Some companies are bold enough to lie through their teeth and claim their products are eco-friendly and satisfy all the requirements of an environmentally friendly product. Consumers who are less aware might buy into these lies.
Ah! Much better.
These are the common things practiced by irresponsible companies who want to take advantage of consumers’ ethical choices. How do you avoid being tricked by greenwashing companies? It’s not always easy, but there are ways for you to safeguard yourself from buying bogus products.
Here are some simple ways for you to avoid greenwashing.
Word of mouth - This is the easiest and fastest way to share information on any greenwashing company. However, make sure you fact-check all information before sharing anything with your friends and family. Once you’re confident with the information you have, you can and should tell as many people as possible. The more people know about any greenwashing companies and collectively stop purchasing their products, the easier it will be for everyone to fight greenwashing.
Name That Sin - Since you’re already aware of the 7 Sins of Greenwashing, practice naming the sin every time you want to buy eco-friendly products. Take your time to read the labels and the ingredients listed on the product. The great thing about modern technology is, you can do a quick search on your mobile phone to know what an ingredient is. You can also do a quick review search on that specific product to know if it is really as natural and green as the manufacturers claim. It may take some time in the beginning because you need to do a lot of searches, but after a while, you will become familiar with the most common ingredients in your cosmetics, personal care, cleaning products, and food.
Educate yourself - Another good way to help combat greenwashing is to educate yourself on existing eco-labels. There are many, but you can familiarize yourself with the common ones. This way, you’re able to detect phony labels without second-guessing yourself. You can find a list of global eco-labels from official websites so you can be familiar with them.
Recognize established logos and emblems - You can refer to these emblems and logos to ensure the products you buy are genuinely environmentally friendly. Common emblems you can rely on are B-Corp, bluesign, EPA Safer Choice, FSC, Greenguard, and Made Safe. A product is subjected to many strict and rigorous tests in order for it to be eligible for these emblems, so if you see it on your product, you’d know it’s safe to use. However, keep in mind that these certifications have many specific criteria and different aspects of the product need to be tested for different requirements. Therefore, even though a product may have any of these emblems, it still doesn’t guarantee that a product is fully sustainable or eco-friendly in every way.
Bring it with you - If you feel it’s a little difficult for you to remember all information about environmentally friendly products, you can carry with you a fact sheet that you can download and print from many NGO websites. These fact sheets can serve as quick guides while you shop. There are also several mobile applications that you can download where they will help you recognize official and genuine labels as well as provide quick information on eco-friendly products.
Choose your shop - With a little bit of homework, you can find out which shops or companies that are genuine in their eco efforts. Choose to shop from these shops because you’re confident that they’re genuine and doing all they can to help conserve and protect the environment.
Upcycle and reuse - You can make a difference to the environment and combat greenwashing by reusing the things you already have. Whenever you’ve finished a product, find ways to reuse the packaging or change it into something you can use for other things. For example, you can use bottle caps to make tealights, old hangers into room screens, or plastic spoons into lamps.
Avoid buying new things - Even something as simple as a t-shirt takes a lot of resources to make. Consider the things you use most and see how you can find alternatives to buying new ones. For example, you can choose to find pre-loved or second-hand clothes instead of buying new clothes. You can buy your fresh produce from local sellers instead of from large supermarket chains. When you buy fewer new items, you can help to create less demand for manufacturers to keep producing new items.
Don’t let your eyes fool you - Many eco-friendly products are packaged in very sophisticatedly attractive packaging. Just because a product has nice fonts or calming earthy colors, it doesn’t mean you should believe they are environmentally friendly. A sustainable, natural, or eco-friendly product focused primarily on the information of the product. While a sleek glass bottle with a cork stopper and a label tied with twine would look stylish on your counter, don’t let your eyes fool you and make the mistake of purchasing greenwashed products.
It’s a wise move to educate ourselves as consumers, so we don’t fall victim to capitalistic companies who only care about making profits. It’s not uncommon for companies to try many different strategies to increase their revenue. There have been incidents where companies that greenwashed their products are found out, and yet, many of these companies don’t take responsibility or ownership. Instead, they use it to their advantage and turn it into opportunities to sell more products.
Therefore, it’s up to us to make sure we’re doing everything we can to educate and safeguard ourselves. While you may feel that your efforts may not make a difference in the profit these big companies are making, every little action that focuses on conserving and protecting our plant matters. This is why it’s important for us to educate ourselves and share factual information with our friends and family.
Even though you feel what you’re doing is only making a small dent in the irresponsible companies’ coffers, our collective efforts can one day make an impactful difference.
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