Since we are now all focused on living more sustainably, ethically and in a more environmentally-friendly way, how do we know the companies were shopping with are actually as ‘green’ as they say?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is basically a form of marketing ‘spin’ that lots of companies are now using to create the impression that their products are actually ‘greener’ than they are. While not always actual lies, often the claims made are very vague and unable to be clearly understood.
This is similar to the concept of ‘Clean Beauty’, where claims that products are ‘natural’ aren’t always backed up by research, or even confusing when an original ingredient comes from a plant, but is then processed so much that there’s almost nothing ‘natural’ about it.
There are many examples of where products are described as being green or environmentally friendly, or more sustainable, or natural etc, but the claims are less than solid or backed up by any research. And in fact, some claims are complete lies, like the ExxonMobil scandal.
For example, there are a number of large high street fashion brands who have ‘sustainability statements’ on their websites that tout some sort of recycling, or use of sustainable materials, but which are in reality a smokescreen of PR to cover up larger, more glaring issues.
Take Zara; the brand has a recycling option in Europe - but it’s only available in a limited number of stores; and while the brand emphasises that its headquarters is a ‘green building’, that has nothing to do with the thousands of non-green stores in malls around the world, or the fact that it still produces millions of pieces of clothing from unsustainable new fabrics that include large amounts of plastic.
So, while it is great to see international brands doing something about the issues of sustainability and climate change, it doesn’t seem like it is quite enough to make a difference to the current global situation.
How to spot greenwashing
There is a very comprehensive list of how to spot greenwashing from the US Federal Trade Commission with its list of guides for how companies shouldn’t advertise or market.
Often products will use images of nature - trees, leaves, plants, animals etc - to imply that the product is ‘green’ or environmentally friendly. Just because the bottle is coloured green doesn’t mean the product inside it is.
If you buy a plastic product in a plastic container and the container has a ‘Recycled’ label on it, you don’t know if the container or the actual product uses recycled plastic.
A product labeled ‘50% more recycled content than before’ could just be an increase of recycled content from 2% to 3%.
Terms like ‘natural’, ‘from nature’, even just ‘green’ used on packaging with no reference to any form of certification or regulatory body, is misleading as there is nothing to link the claim to reality
If only some of the products from a particular brand are sustainable, and the company actually gets more revenue from non-sustainable products, then you might want to consider the overall impact buying that brand, and supporting that company could make to the environment.
A company might actually use ‘recycled’ materials, but the materials are sourced in a way that damages the environment, or is done in an unethical fashion using child labour for example. Looking into the corporate ethics of a company before you buy is also a good idea.
This is when a brand may claim it is free of a certain substance, that would not be likely to actually be used in that product anyway. For example, if an apple is sold as ‘gluten free’ when in fact there isn’t ever any gluten in an apple. Or if a product is sold with a label saying it doesn’t have a particular chemical, when all products of the same type don’t use that chemical anyway.
If you want to know more about where greenwashing came from, and how it is operating in today’s market, The Guardian has a very comprehensive article on the topic.
Why is greenwashing a thing?
Basically it is all about making money, of course. As more customers have become concerned about climate change and other environmental issues, companies have been interested in trying to cash in on the phenomenon.
According to a recent Nielsen Report, around 66% of consumers globally say they will pay more for sustainable products and services; although they are also aware that there is a lot of greenwashing around. Another report, this one from TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, actually found that 98% of products with ‘green’ labelling, are actually greenwashed. So, consumers have reason to be concerned.
When it comes to spending your hard-earned dollars in an ethical and environmentally conscious way, do your research. There are a number of very good organisations that are very transparent about their products. Singapore consumers can go to Green is the New Black to see a list of recommended ethical and green brands, as well as discover more information about the various types of accreditation systems.