Learn how to detect this deceptive marketing tactic.
In this world of hyper-consumption, it is wise to raise a sceptical eyebrow when companies claim that they are taking measures to minimise the impact they are having on the environment. Unfortunately, some companies spend more time and money marketing their brand or products as sustainable than ensuring that they are, in fact, sustainable. Although it sounds clean, greenwashing is a dirty practice.
Origin and Definition of Term
Greenwashing is a marketing tactic designed to make consumers believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it truly is. The term was coined in 1986 by American environmentalist Jay Westervelt, following a visit to a beach resort. Westervelt was dismayed by signs asking hotel guests to reuse their towels in order to "save the environment", considering the vast amount of wastage he had encountered throughout the hotel and a dearth of sustainability efforts. He concluded that the hotel was simply attempting to reduce costs whilst marketing this objective as eco-friendly behaviour. A literary magazine based in New York City with a considerable readership published Westervelt’s story, and shortly thereafter, the term ‘greenwashing’ caught on in the wider media.
By the 1990s, an awareness of greenwashing increased amongst consumers and polls demonstrated that companies’ sustainability efforts — or lack thereof — considerably impacted sales, and by the end of the decade, the term was granted inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary. Still, greenwashing is a deceitful gimmick and continues to successfully play into a desire in consumers to live a ‘green’ life, that is, a life lived by someone cautious of their environmental impact.
Why do Companies Greenwash and Why is it Harmful?
As sustainability becomes increasingly trendy, some companies paint themselves a faux shade of green instead of dedicating time and resources to embed sustainability into all aspects of their business. Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of expertise in sustainability, it can be intentional and implemented through a wide range of PR and marketing efforts. When successfully executed, greenwashing misdirects well-meaning consumers, is harmful to the environment, and negatively impacts smaller businesses.
Consumers, particularly millennials and generation Z, are more likely to spend money on companies viewed as ethical, which gives companies a financial incentive to strive to appear socially conscious. This has led to a similar phenomenon labelled ‘pinkwashing’, which is the public display of a company’s purported commitment to LGBTQ+ causes, particularly prevalent throughout Pride month and typically through the use of rainbow colours or a rainbow logo. Companies that indulge in this kind of marketing can gain an advantage over their rivals. Additionally, large, well-known companies that falsely label their products as, for example, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘natural’ are preventing consumers from supporting small, lesser-known companies that are more environmentally grounded and employ ethical practices whilst creating products.
As time goes on, however, fewer companies are managing to maintain this type of marketing without controversy. The pandemic has spurred public concern regarding this issue, as more and more people are growing increasingly conscious of their footprint.
Examples of Greenwashing
In 2018, a much-loved fast-food chain admitted to using 8 million straws daily in the United Kingdom alone and announced that it was swapping its single-use plastic straws for a paper alternative. Shortly thereafter, the swap was launched across the United Kingdom and Ireland — before the ban on plastic straws was implemented in England in 2020 — as part of the company’s goal to source all of its packaging from recycled, renewable, or certified sources by the year 2025. The following year, however, internal communication leaked, and it was exposed that the paper straws were non-recyclable. Forced to address the matter, a company spokesperson commented that whilst made from recyclable material, the thickness of the straws makes it difficult for them to be processed by their waste solution providers and assured consumers that they are working towards a solution, which is still ongoing.
For airlines, it is particularly important to promote environmentally-friendly endeavours because it is well-known that air travel is an exceptionally carbon-intensive activity. For instance, in an advertisement released in 2019, an airline claimed to have the lowest carbon emissions of any major airline. This claim was brought into question, and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) deemed it misleading and lacking legitimate evidence; a number of popular airlines did not appear in the comparison, key information was missing from reports, and it failed to present a detailed analysis of how this conclusion was reached. As a result, the ASA banned a series of advertisements. With this claim, the airline demonstrated the ultimate greenwashing practice: promoting itself as a ‘better’ alternative. This form of greenwashing enables companies whose practices are harmful to the environment to exploit environmentally conscious consumers, as they market themselves as the least environmentally damaging in comparison with others in their field.
Similarly, it is crucial for fast fashion brands to appear environmentally conscious as, nowadays, the fast fashion industry is continuously under scrutiny. For instance, a fast fashion brand came under fire recently for its allegedly ethical collection as it failed to offer a clear, detailed explanation of how the collection is more sustainable than others supplied by the brand. Consequently, Norway’s Consumer Authority, Forbrukertilsynet, concluded that consumers were given a false impression as the collection was found to be insufficiently sustainable. Also scrutinised is the brand’s call for consumers to drop off old clothing at their stores for recycling, whilst dishing out money-off vouchers to those who oblige. Some argue that this is simply a marketing scheme to retain customers and provide them with an incentive to purchase more clothes from the brand, which further contributes to the fast fashion industry profiting at the expense of the environment.
So, how can you differentiate between companies that market themselves as sustainable and those that truly make sustainable products and maintain ethical practices? Some attempts to greenwash may be fairly transparent; however, others can be difficult to spot, which makes it crucial for consumers to know what to look out for.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Note how the company defines ‘sustainable’
At present, there is no universally accepted definition for terms such as ‘sustainability’. Consequently, brands can market a product as ‘sustainable’ — and often at a marked-up price — without adhering to an explicit definition of the term. It is, therefore, beneficial to try to discover what a company considers ‘sustainable’ before supporting them. If this information is not available, it may be an indication that the brand is not particularly sustainable, as sustainable brands are typically keen to offer an explanation of their practices.
In fact, many fast fashion brands make claims through the use of words that have no legal definition — such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘ethical’, ‘responsibly made, ‘pure’, ‘natural’, and ‘non-toxic’ — or make vague claims that cannot be verified. If a brand fails to explain how such claims can be justified, one can assume that such claims are not accurate.
Look for industry-standard certifications such as Rainforest Alliance, USDA Organic, Forest Stewardship Council, Leaping Bunny, and B Corp. Importantly, beware of logos and certifications that are self-created by brands, as this means that they have not been vetted by a reliable third party. Regarding organic cotton, a particularly popular sustainable material, Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Organic Cotton Standards (OCS) ensure that the cotton meets approved standards across the supply chain.
It is also important to look out for irrelevant claims made in an attempt to appear sustainable. For example, similar to the ‘cholesterol-free’ label on some plant-based products like peanut butter — whilst it’s true that peanut butter is indeed cholesterol-free, it is not unique — some companies put CFC-free on their products in order to appear environmentally and socially conscious, but the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has been banned for decades, which makes this point irrelevant.
Some companies also place particular emphasis on marketing a small green attribute when everything else about the brand is not green. If you are interested in buying from a particular brand, go beyond its most-advertised sustainable product in order to discover if the product is a reflection of their products and practices, or if it is, in fact, a marketing ploy to appear more sustainable than they actually are.
Another tactic is the use of vague language, as companies often make broad claims that are poorly defined. For instance, ‘all-natural’ is a vague declaration as there are many things that are both natural and harmful, like arsenic. Furthermore, some natural materials considered eco-friendly, such as viscose, are only eco-friendly if sustainably sourced, which is not always the case. Orsola de Castro, the founder of the global movement, Fashion Revolution, stresses the fact that viscose contributes to deforestation when it comes from non-certified sources. As previously mentioned, the use of terms relating to sustainability that lack legal, universally recognised definitions, unaccompanied by the company’s own definition, creates a hazy picture of how sustainable the company is.
In fashion, products branded ‘vegan’ are frequently promoted as eco-friendly substitutes for leather and fur, yet synthetic alternatives are often made from oil, which can be harmful to the planet. It is thus necessary to check the material details as consumers influenced by their concern about animal welfare may be unaware of the potential environmental toll of some vegan materials.
Also vague is the use of comparative words, used by companies in an attempt to outrank their rivals whilst making ambiguous claims. For instance, a car company claimed in an advertisement that greener miles are achieved with its new model. Greener than what, exactly? We as consumers must learn to question these comparisons. Although small steps are still steps, it may be the case that the new model of car emits only 1% less emissions than the previous gas-guzzling model.
Imagery can be very impactful in advertising, and so design features that are reminiscent of nature, such as the colour green, images of trees, etcetera, are used to create the impression of an eco-friendly product, oftentimes when there is no substance to back this up. One suggestive image may be flowers blooming from an exhaust pipe in a car advertisement. Sometimes, imagery can be so influential that something as simple as a green-leaf logo can lead consumers to associate the brand or product with sustainability.
How to Avoid Greenwashing
This may seem like a daunting and time-consuming task, but taking the time to learn about greenwashing and research brands before supporting them is time well spent. A critical deconstruction of companies is necessary, particularly if you are choosing a certain brand solely because it is marketed as ‘green’. Researching and shopping with intention can help deconstruct greenwashing initiatives, as the collective power of consumers can pressure companies to be more truthful and more ethical. Unfortunately, until labelling laws become stricter, many companies will continue to mislead consumers by claiming that they are ‘green’, eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, etcetera, which makes it essential for consumers to be sceptical and research companies’ practices as often and thoroughly as possible.
Another way to reduce the likelihood that you will fall for greenwashing is by supporting small artisan businesses. By doing so, you will find that it is typically easier to discover who makes the products, where they are made, how they are made, and what materials are used. Amina Razvi, executive director of Sustainable Apparel Coalition, urges that we invest in brands that integrate sustainability into “everything they do — not just one collection or a handful of pieces".
In order to undermine greenwashing, we must be aware of greenwashing practices and hold companies accountable for vague claims. With an eagle eye on the marketing of companies that we support and by investing in companies that make genuine sustainability efforts, the effects of this deceptive marketing can be diminished.
An edition of this article was originally published at https://aequem.com.