What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to the practice of making misleading or false claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, or company practices. The goal is to make the company appear more environmentally friendly than it really is.
Some common examples of greenwashing include:
- Using vague language like “eco-friendly” or “sustainable” without evidence to back it up
- Making claims that are false or impossible to substantiate
- Promoting one minor “green” attribute while ignoring other harmful practices
- Suggesting a product is green when it only has minimal or superficial differences from the regular version
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
Companies engage in greenwashing for several reasons:
- To appeal to environmentally conscious consumers and increase sales
- To improve brand image and reputation
- To avoid making real changes that reduce environmental impact
- To avoid regulation and deflect criticism of harmful practices
Ultimately, the motivation is increased profit while spending as little money as possible on meaningful change. Greenwashing allows companies to gain credit for being “green” without the expense of implementing major operational changes.
Common Greenwashing Techniques
Here are some specific techniques that companies use to mislead consumers:
Terms like “eco-friendly,” “green,” “natural,” and “sustainable” are largely meaningless without context. Companies use this vague language knowing that consumers will make assumptions that their products are greener than they really are.
Irrelevant “Green” Features
Companies will promote one minor green attribute while ignoring their larger environmental impact. For example, highlighting “recyclable” packaging even though most of the product ends up in landfills.
Images of nature, green leaves, or renewable energy are used to subconsciously associate products with being environmentally friendly though no real connection exists.
False Labels or Certifications
Fake “eco-labels” confuse customers into believing products have been endorsed or certified by an independent agency. Some labels mimic established eco-labels.
Companies promote connections to environmental causes or organizations to improve their image without making significant changes to products or operations.
Bringing attention to marginal efforts like recycling programs or eliminating straws diverts attention from more impactful environmental harms being caused.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Here are some tips for identifying greenwashing:
Be skeptical of vague claims – Words like “natural” mean little without evidence. Dig into specifics.
Research labels and certifications – Look into who is behind them and what criteria is required.
Check for specifics – What percentage is recycled? How are emissions reduced? What practices changed?
Follow the money – Is more spent on marketing an image than real impact?
Compare products – Does the “green” version differ in significant ways or only superficially?
Consider tradeoffs – A product may be better in one way but cause harm in others.
Verify supporting evidence – Make sure claims can be backed up by independent sources.
Questions to Ask About Products
Here are some important questions to research about a product you’re considering:
- How and where was the product manufactured?
- What materials were used? Are they eco-friendly?
- How far did it travel to get to you?
- Is the product designed for reuse, repair, and longevity?
- Can it be composted or recycled, and what facilities exist for that in your area?
- Does the company have initiatives to reduce waste, water use, and emissions in operations?
- Is the product certified by trustworthy, independent eco-labels like Energy Star or FSC?
- Does the company disclose detailed environmental impact reports for your review?
Digging into these specifics takes more effort but helps avoid unfounded marketing claims. Support brands that are transparent and making legitimate efforts.
Examples of Authentic Eco-Friendly Companies
While greenwashing remains common, many brands are driving real, positive change:
Patagonia – Outdoor clothing company known for sustainable materials, fair trade practices, and durability for reducing waste.
Allbirds – Footwear startup using innovative natural materials like merino wool and eucalyptus fiber to create carbon neutral products.
IKEA – Retail giant transitioning to 100% renewable energy, recycling programs, sustainable forest sourcing, and eco-friendly product design.
Seventh Generation – Leading manufacturer of non-toxic cleaning and paper products sourced sustainably with full transparency.
Method – Soap company revolutionizing cleaning products with naturally derived, biodegradable ingredients and sleek recycled packaging.
Supporting the leaders avoids greenwashing and motivates others to follow suit.
Making Choices as a Consumer
Whenever possible, reduce consumption and choose services over products ownership.
Buy quality, durable goods – even if higher cost – to avoid disposability.
Seek out certifications from reputable, independent organizations.
Purchase local and in-season whenever possible to minimize transportation.
Avoid excess packaging by choosing loose, unpackaged bulk options.
Vote with your dollar to motivate companies toward real impact and away from greenwashing.
Making green choices does get easier with practice over time. Start where you can.
The Bottom Line
Greenwashing remains rampant, so maintain skepticism. Look past image and vague claims by digging into specifics that companies should provide. With close inspection many products fail to deliver on promises, while others prove authentically eco-friendly through materials, processes, transparency and third party verifications. As consumers learn to identify and call out greenwashing, the incentive for superficial marketing claims will decline.