How to spot greenwashing
Greenwashing – the archnemesis of the sustainable consumer.
If you’re not familiar with it, greenwashing is when companies market themselves or their products as being more sustainable than they actually are. This might be through their words, through virtue signalling or even through the deliberate use of “earthy” colours like browns and greens.
Companies have cottoned on to the fact that a lot of us really care about the planet and want to make more conscious choices. In fact, in 2019, 72% of respondents in a survey by Accenture said they were buying more environmentally-friendly products than they were five years ago, with 81% saying the expected to buy more in the next five years.
So the market for sustainable products is booming – which is great – but unfortunately some companies are taking shortcuts and doing what they can to make their companies look eco-friendly without really making an effort to lower their impact.
And some companies ARE doing great things but aren’t communicating that clearly to consumers. Which results in a whole lot of confusion for customers.
Things are getting better, especially since the Green Claims Code was brought in in the UK in 2021, but consumers still need to look out for greenwashing if they want their money to go to the right places.
Below are a few handy questions you can ask yourself when trying to figure out whether a company is greenwashing. If the answer to any of them is “no”, then there’s a good chance there’s some greenwashing at play.
Do they provide specific information about what makes them or their product sustainable?
The word “sustainable” on its own without any context is a red flag. It can mean a lot of things, and customers need to know what a company means when they use that word. According to the Green Claims Code, companies aren’t legally allowed to make vague claims on sustainability. They should make a concrete claim, such as “100% recycled” or “produced using renewable energy” and provide sources to back up the claim.
Are they transparent about how and where their materials are sourced?
Companies should make information about the materials used in their products, including how and where they’re sourced, available to their customers. They can’t simply claim to use sustainable materials and not back that up.
Is their entire business model sustainable? Or is it just one product or line of products?
A favourite tactic of many companies, particularly fast fashion brands, is to have one range that it markets as sustainable. However, you should think about the business as whole. If their entire business model is built around overproduction and creating masses of waste, then one line made from organic cotton doesn’t counteract that. It’s better to spend your money on a business that takes a holistic approach to sustainability.
Is the product sustainable across its whole lifecycle? Or does it just use one “sustainable” material?
Many people only think about the materials used in a product, such as recycled polyester or organic cotton, when making purchasing decisions. However, that’s only one part of the puzzle. The production methods, shipping and how it is disposed of all contribute to the carbon footprint and environmental impact of a product. Companies should produce a lifecycle assessment and make it available so that consumers can see the impact of a product across its entire lifetime.
Do they focus on reducing carbon consumption as well as carbon offsetting?
Tree planting is all the rage – and of course, carbon offsetting is an important piece of the war on climate change. However, it can be used as a greenwashing tactic. Often, it’s a lot easier for a company to sign up to a tree planting scheme than to do the work reviewing their processes and cutting their carbon emissions in the first place. And reducing our emissions should always come before offsetting.
Are their sustainability goals bold enough?
Many companies are talking about carbon neutrality by 2040, 2050… But drastic action is required on climate right now. It should be a priority for every business to cut their emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible. Find companies to support whose plans match the urgency of the climate crisis.
Navigating the world of conscious consumption can be hard, but at the end of the day, all we can do is try our best. Any companies worth their salt will have employed a specialist sustainability copywriter to make sure all their marketing complies with the latest greenwashing legislation and will make it easy for their consumers. And of course, third party certifications and independent directories like ethical consumer magazine are a great way to make sure companies are legit with their green claims.