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Greenwashing and the Zero Waste Movement

by Ossapha Ou

Greenwashing

The false perception and all you need to know

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What Exactly IS Greenwashing?

Greenwashing (also called green sheen) is a disingenuous form of marketing in which PR spin and propaganda, purposefully used to convey the false perception that a company’s policies and goals are eco-friendly and ethically-sourced, for the sole purpose of increasing their profit margins.

These companies spend more time and money on “LOOKING” green through their marketing than they do on actually “BEING” green by investing those resources on finding and employing environmentally-sound business practices that minimize their impact on the planet. With an increased public awareness of environmental concerns, consumers are more willing to make purchasing decisions based on whether or not it’s good for the planet. On one hand, it’s wonderful to see new green businesses continue to pop up to supply the surge in demand for nature-friendly goods. On the other hand, this unfortunately has also given rise to less scrupulous companies who view greenwashing as nothing other than a profitable business strategy. Quite simply, for these companies, they only wish to “look” green in order to make some “green.”

How Do Companies Greenwash?

The internet was a catalyst for a decades-long evolution that elevated the state of environmentalism from a relatively insignificant social campaign into a culturally-influential zero waste movement with a giant green appetite that’s shaping the way companies are doing business. But while an increasingly environmentally-conscious public may be motivated to make eco-friendlier purchases, a company that may be motivated to take your money can use deceptive greenwashing practices to mislead you into buying products that won’t help (or possibly even harm) the environment.

Below are examples of how some companies use greenwashing to confuse, distract, and dupe consumers into buying products that really aren’t as “green” as they wish to be seen.

Misleading Labels & Certifications

Third-Party certifications such as USDA Organic, ENERGY STAR, and Green Seal are effective ways for companies to advertise their green credentials. But not all certifications can be taken at face value and deserving of further investigation. Beware of labels stating a product is “Certified, “100% Organic,” etc. without any information to substantiate those claims, as there is a good possibility that they are self-declared certifications. The familiar “Biodegradable” label you might find on plastics may sound environmentally-friendly. But when you consider that the “biodegradable” certification is not regulated by a specified break down timeframe (unlike compostable plastic), the label becomes quite meaningless.

Check out our blog post here to clarify the confusion surrounding biodegradable and compostable plastics.

Environmental & Nature Imagery

A quintessential example of greenwashing is the use of plant life, wildlife, and other images of the natural world in advertisements and packaging. In reality, eco-driven brands that are concerned that their production costs are not wasted on superficial or unnecessary marketing gimmicks generally tend to sell their products in plain packaging with simple imagery.

Hidden Trade-Offs

This happens when a company advertises itself or its products as “green” based on a single or a narrow set of environmental attributes, without acknowledging the other impacts it makes on the planet. For example, a product claiming to be made from recycled material may seem like an eco-friendly purchase. But more information is needed on the environmental impact it has from the manufacturing and distribution process to determine if it is truly green.

Lesser of Two Evils

This occurs when a company tries to mislead you into thinking it is eco-friendly with (technically) true product claims that have no environmental benefits to begin with. By comparing them to other items within its product category, without acknowledging its net impact on the environment. Green pesticides may be LESS harmful to the environment when compared to other pesticides, but this doesn’t mean it’s environmentally safe. Fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles may create less of a carbon footprint than other SUVs, but it hardly makes it the greenest way to get from one place to another.

Irrelevant Claims

Brands that advertise their eco-friendly attributes is helpful for consumers trying to make environmentally responsible choices. But be cautious of any product that makes irrelevant claims. These are designed to distract you from a truly greener option. Would you be swayed into making a purchase if a product claims to have never been tested on woolly mammoths? They’ve long been extinct, so of course not. Just the same, you shouldn’t be swayed into buying an item advertises itself to be “CFC-free” since chlorofluorocarbons have long been banned by law.

Why Is Greenwashing A Problem?

We now live in the most environmentally-conscious periods in recent times, with two-thirds of global consumers saying that they are willing to pay more for eco-friendly products and brands. The demand for sustainable goods and services is high, and the commercial industry has begun to recognize the potential gains to be made by tapping into this relatively new market. While the zero waste movement has had a positive impact by encouraging many companies to allocate their time and money on ways to “green up their act” for the benefit of a better planet, it has also paved the way for less ethical companies to spend their same resources simply just to “green up their image” for the sake of a better profit.

But greenwashing is not new. Companies have long used such dubious methods to exploit the green movement by marketing their brand as nature-friendly and their business practices as environmentally-sound, when in fact they are not. But in today’s world with sustainability becoming more mainstream, greenwash advertisings has been escalating at an alarming rate and its methods more subtle and increasingly complex. A recent poll has shown that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more on environmentally sustainable brands while a separate study has determined that 98% of green-labeled products are actually greenwashed! It goes without saying that this has eroded the public’s trust on green labels, when in fact they should ideally be helpful indicators for those looking to purchase sustainable goods.

Following The 10 Green Commandments and living a zero waste lifestyle already comes with its challenges without the bombardment misleading marketing campaigns deliberately designed to confuse and distract a hopeful and eager public wanting to do right for the environment. But as long as these deceptive advertising practices continue to be so loosely regulated, the green movement will always face an existential threat from greenwashing.

How Can I Avoid Greenwashed Products?

Due to an increasing public eagerness to act in a more consume responsibly in an effort to help curb the environmental challenges of our times, many businesses have chosen to employ greenwashing practices to create a superficially green image for no reason other than to increase sales. Most people are willing pay more for sustainable brands; however, they rarely take the time to investigate which companies are truly as green as they claim to be. Greenwashing allows companies to take advantage of this reality in order to prey on the goodwill of an ever-growing demographic of environmentally-conscious consumers.

Here are some ways that YOU protect yourself and the planet from greenwashing:

  • Familiarize yourself with the updated Federal Trade Commission Green Guide for information on what types of claims a company can make regarding green products and what claims require further verification.
  • Look for green labels, seals, or certification marks from recognized and well-trusted third-parties that specialize on green claims such as ENERGY STAR and Green Seal. Be wary or investigate further those that you don’t recognize. You may even wish to contact the certifier directly, if you so choose.
  • Take extra time and pay closer attention to a products packaging. Don’t be distracted by green images of plant and wildlife. Be attentive and read what’s written on the packaging including any fine print. Be aware of the material it is packaged in and ask yourself if it can be discarded of in safe and natural way.
  • Read the “How to use” instructions. Be aware if you see “Caution” or products with directions to “Use in a well-ventilated area” as there is a good chance that the product has strong chemicals that are harmful to your health and the environment.
  • Be aware of vague claims that can’t be substantiated. True green companies are proud to support their claims to advertise their credentials. Greenwashed claims are often vague and do not provide supporting evidence.
  • INVESTIGATE! We live in a time that essentially all the knowledge in the world is in the palm of our hands. Use the power of the web to research any brands or products that you are not completely familiar or suspect is using greenwashing to entice you into buying their product.

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