What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing refers to the practice of making misleading or false claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service. Companies may use greenwashing tactics to make their products seem more eco-friendly than they really are in order to appeal to increasingly environmentally conscious consumers.
Some common examples of greenwashing include:
- Using vague terms like “natural” or “eco-friendly” without any specific details or certifications
- Making an environmental claim that is true but distracts from negative impacts elsewhere (e.g. highlighting recyclable packaging when the product itself is not eco-friendly)
- Suggesting a product is “green” simply because of an association with nature (like putting a leaf on the label)
Why is Greenwashing Harmful?
The problem with greenwashing is that it can make it very difficult for consumers to make informed choices. Greenwashing misleads well-meaning buyers who want to purchase environmentally responsible options.
Some specific dangers of greenwashing include:
- It promotes skepticism – Too much misleading “green marketing” causes consumers to distrust all environmental claims, even legitimate ones
- It slows progress – Greenwashing gives people a false impression that enough is being done, reducing urgency around environmental issues
- It rewards the wrong behavior – Companies engaging in greenwashing often profit from their misleading claims, while truly eco-friendly brands lose out
In essence, greenwashing allows companies to benefit from an appearance of sustainability without making substantive changes to reduce their environmental footprint.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Here are some tips to help avoid being misled by greenwashing when shopping:
Look for Specific Details
Terms like “natural” or “eco-friendly” are vague and largely unregulated. Seek out specific certifications, ingredients, manufacturing processes or standards. Credible specifics indicate a robust, verifiable approach to sustainability.
Research Company Sustainability Practices
Look beyond the product itself. Check the company’s website and other sources for their overall commitment to environmental stewardship. Robust sustainability initiatives (not just related to one product line) suggest authenticity.
Be Wary of Distracting Claims
Watch for “trade-off” tactics. An environmental claim that distracts from other impacts is a red flag. For example, non-toxic ingredients don’t make up for unsustainable resource extraction.
Consult Trusted Ecolabels
Learn which ecolabel certifications have stringent standards and third-party verification. These include EPA Safer Choice, Green Seal, USDA Organic and Energy Star. Their logos offer assurance that extensive sustainability criteria have been met.
Read Between the Lines
Question vague, fleeting or feel-good claims. Terms like “natural,” “green,” “non-toxic” and “responsibly sourced” are largely unregulated. Without evidence, these claims may be shallow greenwashing.
Evaluating Common Marketing Claims
When assessing environmental claims on products and services, here are some key considerations:
- Potential Greenwashing: Vague, unverified claims. Natural materials are not necessarily eco-friendly.
- What to Look For: USDA Certified Organic, specific details on sustainable harvesting.
- Potential Greenwashing: Deflects attention from lifecycle impacts beyond ingredients.
- What to Look For: Cradle to cradle assessments of impacts from production to disposal.
“Eco-Friendly” / “Sustainable”
- Potential Greenwashing: Broad, unsupported labels.
- What to Look For: Life cycle assessments, third-party ecolabels.
- Potential Greenwashing: Misleading when most “recyclable” plastic still ends up in landfills.
- What to Look For: Details on recyclability, commitments to use high recycled content.
- Potential Greenwashing: Superficial if company still uses excessive packaging overall.
- What to Look For: Comprehensive packaging reduction strategy.
- Potential Greenwashing: Vague claims without certification.
- What to Look For: Credible, stringent certifications like FSC wood.
When in Doubt, Do Your Research
Misleading marketing claims can slip through even in a well-intentioned green product. When faced with substantial environmental claims, take time to investigate the details, certifications and overall company commitment to sustainability. With more scrutiny of corporate greenwashing, authentic eco-conscious brands will gain the advantage they deserve.
The bottom line is that going green requires more than taking claims at face value. But by educating yourself on what to look for, we can all make truly eco-friendly purchases. With mindful shopping, we encourage legitimate environmental stewardship.