How to Tell If Your “Eco-Friendly” Products Are Greenwashing You

How to Tell If Your “Eco-Friendly” Products Are Greenwashing You

Introduction

With growing consumer demand for sustainable and eco-friendly products, many companies are eager to market their wares as “green” and environmentally friendly. However, not all of these claims live up to scrutiny. Greenwashing is when a company makes misleading statements or provides false impressions about how their products benefit the environment. As a conscious consumer, it’s important to learn how to spot greenwashing so you can make truly eco-friendly purchases.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explain what greenwashing is, why companies do it, and most importantly – how you can identify it. Arm yourself with the knowledge to see through shallow marketing claims, and find products that walk the talk when it comes to sustainability.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to the practice of making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. The term combines the words “green” and “whitewashing.” It was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 when he criticized a hotel chain for placing reuse towels signs in each room to indicate environmental awareness, while little else about the hotel’s practices was sustainable.

The goal of greenwashing is to capitalize on consumers’ growing eco-consciousness by making superficial changes that suggest eco-friendliness, while continuing environmentally harmful business-as-usual practices. It’s false or exaggerated advertising that makes companies seem more environmentally friendly than they really are.

Some common examples of greenwashing include:

  • Using vague terms like “all-natural,” “eco-safe,” or “green” without proof or certified eco-labels
  • Making an unimportant product feature seem like an impactful change
  • Making claims that are outright false or impossible to prove
  • Selectively presenting information to mislead consumers

Why Do Companies Greenwash?

The motives behind greenwashing are simple – money and reputation. As consumers become more concerned about issues like climate change and environmental pollution, demand grows for sustainable and eco-friendly products. By making false or misleading claims, companies can:

  • Capitalize on the growing green market to boost sales and profits
  • Appease eco-conscious investors and shareholders who value corporate responsibility
  • Improve their public image through deceptive PR and advertising
  • Avoid making meaningful changes that could cut into their profit margins

Essentially, greenwashing allows companies to enjoy the financial benefits and public relations value of being perceived as environmentally friendly – without investing the money or effort to implement substantial changes.

Common Forms of Greenwashing

Companies that engage in greenwashing use a variety of tactics and methods to mislead consumers. Here are some of the most common types to watch out for:

Vague, Broad Claims

Terms like “natural,” “eco-safe,” “non-toxic,” “green,” and “sustainable” are popular Greenwashing buzzwords. But if a company doesn’t provide specifics about what makes the product environmentally friendly, treat these claims with skepticism.

Irrelevant “Green” Features

Some products tout small, relatively insignificant attributes as proof of eco-friendliness. For example, highlighting “made with recycled paper” when the paper accounts for only 1% of the item’s materials. These distract from the larger picture.

Imagery and Design

Soothing nature photos, Earth tones, and leafy green graphics are commonly used to subconsciously convey environmental friendliness. But smart design is not the same as smart practices.

Misleading Comparisons

A company might advertise its product as “greener” than an obviously inferior option, diverting attention from more relevant alternatives. Or claims may be technically true but omit key details.

Questionable Certifications

Watch out for fake “green certifications” that look impressively official. Some are from industry groups with lax standards created just for greenwashing.

Liability Reduction

Rather than making substantive changes, companies may redirect responsibility to consumers – saying it’s up to you to use their product in a green way.

How to Identify Greenwashing

Now that you know the common greenwashing strategies companies use, here are some tips for seeing through the hype:

Check for specifics

  • Ask questions about exactly how and why the product is eco-friendly. Be wary if the claims are vague or focus on just one minor factor.

  • Look for measurable data backing up claims about reduced environmental impact. Beware of numbers that seem impressively large but lack context.

  • Verify certifications come from reputable third parties, not self-made industry groups. Authentic labels like Energy Star and Forest Stewardship Council can help identify trustworthy products.

Consider the whole lifecycle

  • An item is only as green as its entire lifecycle – from materials sourcing to manufacturing, packaging, shipping, use, and disposal. Don’t let companies highlight one “feel-good” detail without disclosing the bigger picture.

  • For example, companies may tout “made with recycled materials” when production depends on environmentally harmful practices. Or appliances may have high energy efficiency for use but require wasteful shipping and non-recyclable packaging.

Follow the money

  • Find out if the company has made meaningful investments and operational changes to become more sustainable. Or are they spending more money marketing themselves as green than substantively reducing environmental impacts?

  • Transparency about the investment in sustainability initiatives can help reveal when companies are truly walking the talk instead of relying on greenwashing.

Trust reputable evaluators

  • Consult independent, third-party assessments of products and companies. Organizations like Consumer Reports and environmental nonprofits can serve as watchdogs and cut through marketing hype.

  • Check company ratings on sites like GoodGuide.com which assess and aggregate sustainability factors beyond the advertisers’ claims.

Examples of Greenwashing

To help make these tips more concrete, here are a few real-world examples of greenwashing to watch out for:

Example 1: Vague claims

  • A cleaning product is branded “Eco-green” and says it’s better for the planet. But they provide no specific details about biodegradability, ingredients, manufacturing practices, or other measurable environmental impacts.

  • A plastic food container says “Made with Nature’s Best Ingredients.” This warm fuzzy claim tells you nothing substantive. All food containers are made with ingredients from nature – that’s what materials are.

Example 2: Misleading comparisons

  • Bottled water is advertised as a “Greener Choice” compared to soda. While technically true, this glosses over the larger issues of plastic waste and high water footprints inherent to all bottled beverages. The comparison distracts from actually eco-friendly options.

Example 3: Imagery and design

  • A conventional cotton T-shirt is promoted using idyllic nature imagery with green coloring. However, traditional cotton growing uses enormous amounts of water and pesticides. The attempt to equate the product to environmental health through branding is deceptive greenwashing.

Example 4: Irrelevant “green” features

  • A new model of SUV is advertised as “Now with 10% recycled steel!” While better than none, 10% recycled content is a marginal improvement that distracts from an SUV’s intrinsically high emissions, gas usage, and environmental impact during manufacturing and use.

Avoiding Greenwashed Products

Here are a few final tips for using what you’ve learned to avoid greenwashed products:

  • Research beyond advertising claims by consulting objective evaluations from reputable environmental groups.

  • Check for legitimate sustainability certifications like Energy Star for efficiency or Cradle to Cradle for comprehensive health and circularity factors.

  • Support companies with proven commitments to sustainability initiatives, renewable energy, waste reduction, and transparency.

  • Buy based on full lifecycle impacts, not just singular attributes like recyclability or water use. Consider factors like durability, repair-ability, manufacturing practices, and packaging.

  • Rely on trusted green labels like Fairtrade, USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance, and Forest Stewardship Council when available. While no label is perfect, credible third parties help verify meaningful standards.

  • Vote with your dollars to incentivize real change. Seek out and reward substantively eco-friendly brands and products.

With vigilance and research, we can all see through the hype and make truly green purchases. Small everyday choices collectively drive shifts in corporate priorities. By figuring out how to identify greenwashing, we as consumers have power to move companies toward more responsible practices.