As the world continues to face the turbulence and drastic changes from climate change, more and more people turn their heads towards ways to help. Which means more people are looking for sustainable products, but how do you know if a company is genuinely sustainable or just greenwashing for a marketing ploy to bring in more ethical consumers?
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing has become a habitual cocoon for more prominent companies, hiding behind a shell that reveals itself to be eco-friendly and sustainable or helpful for the environment. Behind it all, there is a hidden less than ethical background.
Greenwashing comes with many names and faces. It can also be referred to as ‘performative sustainability’ and ‘green sheen’.
The actual term ‘greenwashing’ was coined by an environmentalist Jay Westerveld, back in 1986 in his essay about the hotel industry and their unsustainable practices, all initially inspired by hotels’ ‘save the towel’ movement.
But what does the term mean? Several things, but the basics stand: Where a company uses hyperbolic jargon and appears to be sustainable and ethical, which leads to being a singular product being ‘green’, or none at all. Hiding behind this sustainable ruse, as well as swatting away the onlookers to the company’s much darker background that as a whole is unethical or far from sustainable.
Spot Out Greenwashing
As sustainability and ethical consumerism are a trending parallel to the imminent alert of the ongoing climate crisis. People are searching further for more sustainable action they can take. In particular, large companies are taking advantage of the trend by falsely attracting ethical buyers and burying genuine sustainable companies working on making a real difference. It is more important than ever to be able to decipher between the two.
Spotting greenwashing has become more like finding a needle in a haystack, but Futerra’s 2015 Selling Sustainability Report, narrows it down with ten marketing strategies that tend to perk up with a company guilty of greenwashing:
- Fluffy Language: Using terms that have no significant meaning behind it and without concrete evidence.
- Green Products in a Dirty Company: As stated previously, greenwashing is usually visualised as a company orchestrating ethical substance in one product while their company as a whole may be creating more damage than good. E.g. One soap could be vegan and eco-friendly while all the other soaps made by the company are tested on animals.
- Suggestive Images: Typical symbolism you may see with sustainability that indicates they’re making a green impact when they’re not. It’s not the imagery itself but their intentions and uses to draw customers when their products show no evidence of such sustainability.
- Irrelevant Claims: Emphasising one small aspect that may be making a positive green attribution, whereas everything else is unsustainable.
- “Best In The Class”: Marketing themselves as the best out of the industry. This even might mean the rest are just as bad also.
- Lack of Credibility: Deeming a product as ‘green’ when it is known to be dangerous or harmful, and calling it “safe” and “eco-friendly”.
- Confusing Jargon: Using terminology used that only a scientist would grasp and would be able to verify.
- Imaginary friends: This could mean a ‘label’ that doesn’t exist but can look like an official endorsement.
- No Proof: Not enough evidence to prove it’s all true.
- Outright Lies: Completely fabricated information or facts.
Similarly, A study by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing on greenwashing, including their ‘Six Sins of Greenwashing’ where they had found that with 1,018 consumer products, all of them had committed at least one of these sins. The TerraChoice’s Six Sins include:
- Fibbing: Making claims about being environmental or ‘green’ that is false.
- Vagueness: Being non-specific with how they have sourced their materials or don’t go into detail about how their products are made or the operations that follow.
- Lesser Evils: Applying a ‘green’ label to an environmentally unfriendly product.
- Irrelevance: Making big claims about avoiding specific actions and materials that are already non-standard or banned.
- Hidden Trade-off: Having products advertised as a ‘green’ product when, in fact, only one element of it, is green, while in general, it’s more harmful. E.g. an energy-saving lightbulb might contain other toxic or non-eco-friendly materials.
- No Proof: The products may be “certified” as being organic or eco-friendly without a verifiable certificate
Lastly, greenwashing tends to stick big trending buzzwords with their products often associated with sustainability to draw in consumers without backing up their point.
Greenwashing Vs. Real Sustainability
Due to greenwashing’s growing popularity, it has become harder to find genuine sustainable companies and products.
Real sustainability usually includes the company having a whole history of social and environmental improvements while working forwards to take more ethical actions.
Green Marketing itself is another step from sustainable products. It’s about developing and advertising a company’s products that have a viable impact on the environment or are sustainable. In contrast, Greenwashing simply follows a trend and does not follow through with their promise of green products.
Sustainable companies and businesses usually tick off the following:
- The products are manufactured sustainably
- They don’t use needless or excessive amounts of packaging
- Materials are non-toxic
- They are made from recycled or are made to be recyclable
- Made from renewable materials
All in all, companies’ transparency is essential and should be a priority for their brand. To further their journey to becoming a real, sustainable company, they should also admit to any mistakes they may have made. Additionally, they should have a holistic manner wherever they’re embodying their theme of sustainability and eco-friendly behaviour. Wherever possible, the company should present its products’ life cycle and its afterlife. They should make sure they can back up any claims they have, take real actions towards being ethical and sustainable and have such be the company’s core. All of this would lead to gaining the customers’ trust.
A lot of larger companies will be recognised with certificates and government-based standards. Instagram account, @ssustainably_ who educates their followers about conscious consumerism, posted how certification is expensive and notably smaller companies may not have any.
Companies that market one product of theirs as sustainable, whereas other products are not, still fall under the umbrella of greenwashing. Whereas having a whole company which encompasses sustainability and eco-friendly products isn’t.
To further tackle greenwashing, websites like Compare Ethics help verify brands’ sustainability ranking and brand transparency. Additionally, customers should keep an eye out on sustainable news sites to find out more about ethical and sustainable companies.