With climate change becoming a very real threat, many companies are choosing to support green practices to reduce their environmental impact. However, there are also many companies taking advantage of consumers’ environmental concerns and misleading them into thinking the companies and products are environmentally friendly, when in reality, they are not. This is known as “greenwashing.”
In this article, we’ll go over what greenwashing entails in detail and include ways for you to spot when companies are engaging in this less than ethical practice.
Scientific American describes greenwashing as “falsely conveying to consumers that a given product, service, company or institution factors environmental responsibility into its offerings and/or operations.”
Basically this boils down to companies touting some “green” measure to mislead you when in actuality they are not doing anything for the good of the environment and may even be contributing to more pollution.
We see greenwashing in so many types of companies, including (but not limited to) food companies, bottled water companies, the fashion industry, power companies, the home construction industry, and car companies. This misinformation can be conveyed through product labels and advertising.
A few real-world examples of companies that had to remove their greenwashing ads include BMW misleadingly advertising it’s electric car being zero emissions when it had a small petrol engine and Shell Oil claiming a strip mining project and largest oil refinery construction project were “sustainable” (The Guardian, 2020). Another example included a dog waste bag company claiming its poop bags were biodegradable but were researched to find that they would not degrade in a traditional landfill.
Why is Greenwashing Harmful?
Greenwashing is a harmful practice because many of these companies who claim to be helping the environment are actually doing more harm. There is even a specific term for this: Corporate greenwashing. This is when a business makes “impressive claims about their sustainability to distract from their unsustainable practices” (Sea Going Green).
When corporations make false environmental claims and consumers believe them, it can cause the mindful consumer to accidentally harm the environment even more by supporting the company.
It seems hard to believe that companies can get away with this, but it is an unfortunately still a reality due to limited verifications and government regulations in place. Thankfully, there are watchdog organizations that are working to expose these greenwashing practices, including groups like Greenpeace, Friends of Europe, Co-op America, CorpWatch and GreenBiz (HowStuffWorks).
With more and more consumers and environmental groups becoming more aware of this practice, the hope is that companies will soon realize they will be called out for it and in turn will avoid these unethical practices altogether.
How You Can Spot Greenwashing
It’s easy to be misled by false claims of “eco-friendly,” “sustainable” and “green” on product packaging if you don’t know what to look out for. The Sierra Club states that if the terms on labels (including “green, earth friendly, easy on the environment,” etc.) aren’t backed up by specifics, they raise a red flag for possible greenwashing.
Other possible greenwashing phrases include “natural,” “biodegradable,” “non-toxic,” and “eco-friendly” without stating how the product actually is any of those terms.
Other red flags include “pretty packaging, non-transparency, and big promises that sound too good to be true” (Grist). Legitimate certifications to look for include EnergyStar for appliances, the USDA organic seal for food products, and the Green Seal for cleaning products.
There has also been an increase in less-than-credible third-party certifications and environmental seals that have cropped up in the home building industry. The Sierra Club states that the current credible certifications to look for for construction projects are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifications and LEED certified projects.
The best way to avoid supporting companies that truly are greenwashing is to check their certifications and know what to look out for, such as the phrases mentioned above that don’t indicate how they’re making these claims. Once you’ve got these tactics down, you’ll be able to spot these misleading practices and support businesses that actually do want to help the environment.
If you’re still unsure if the company is practicing greenwashing, you can do a quick internet search to look into their company philosophy and determine if their claims are credible. It’s also a good idea to look into information on the business that doesn’t come directly from the business itself.
I want to add that if a label contains the above-mentioned environmental phrases, it doesn’t always mean the company is greenwashing. They very well could be a reputable company that is doing what they can to prevent climate change. This is where your handy (quick) research comes in to ensure the claims are legitimate 🙂
Now that you’re well-equipped with strategies to spot greenwashing companies, you can support companies that truly are reducing their harmful impact and in turn reduce your carbon footprint as well.
Let us know in the comments what other strategies you’ve come across to spot and avoid these greenwashing companies and businesses.