Making Sustainable Choices in the Age of Greenwashing

by Sustainable Choice 08/10/2021

Thought Starters

A guide to understanding greenwashing, what it is and how to avoid it

With global pressure to achieve a sustainable future mounting, it’s never been more important for companies to be transparent about their environmental impact. However, progress has been slow – and rather than take steps towards more conscious practices, some brands instead choose to use clever language and imagery on their packaging to give the impression of planet friendliness.

Greenwashing is the deliberate pedalling of misinformation regarding a company’s environmental impact. This gives us, the consumers, the impression that they’re looking out for the environment and actively protecting it when their actions may not always align with their promises.

The Birth of Greenwashing

Greenwashing isn’t a new issue – the term was originally coined back in 1986 by Jay Westerveld. As an undergraduate student, he’d found himself in Fiji whilst travelling for research. A note had been left by a nearby resort, urging beach users to pick up their towels to protect the beaches and coral reefs that lurked below the surface.

At face value, the resort appeared to be caring for and protecting the environment. However, at closer inspection, the resort was expanding, destroying the environment in the process. The image portrayed to customers and the reality of their actions was worlds apart.

Alarmed by the deception he’d witnessed, Westerveld wrote an essay in a popular New York magazine describing greenwashing, and the term quickly caught on.

However, examples of greenwashing have popped up as far back as the late 1960s in the United States. Nuclear power plants in the country proudly proclaimed themselves ‘safe’ despite having experienced two nuclear meltdowns. The issue of nuclear waste was left out of the narrative entirely – a problem we’re still struggling with today.

A Rising Problem

Businesses guilty of greenwashing often have the same motivation – money. A Nielsen poll from 2015 found 66% of consumers would pay more for a product if it’s sustainable – rising to 72% in millennials. With everyone trying to ‘do their bit’ to protect the environment, there are profits to be made off the back of eco-friendly merchandise and more and more brands are making changes to attract the eco-conscious consumer. Whilst there has been incredible progress in recent years by large organisations to reduce their impact on the planet, there are still some talking a lot and doing a little.

In Westervelt’s day, ad campaigns only reached us through a much more limited number of channels – primarily TV, radio and print. Nowadays, with the internet and social media, we’re constantly bombarded with ads targeted directly at us. Those ads aren’t always transparent, and independent fact-checkers are overwhelmed with content to verify. All too often, misleading campaigns slip through the cracks.

However, the internet does provide us with the means to fact-check company claims ourselves. This isn’t to say all companies will make it easy or are transparent – which is usually a red flag regarding their true sustainability.

Websites such as sustainablechoice.com have sprung up in recent years that dig deeper into brands environmental practices. Sustainablechoice.com is a digital destination for sustainability information, a hub where brands can share their sustainability journey and provide an space to share their own planet-conscious actions and goals.

So, the next time you’re looking at a product that claims to be ‘natural’ or good for the planet, take a moment look it up on Sustainable Choice, it’s a great first step to find out how the brand explains the actions behind the label.  

Consumption And Consumerism. Portrait Of Young Woman With Shopping Cart In Market Buying Groceries Food Taking Products From Shelves In Store, Holding Glass Jar Of Sauce, Checking Label Or Expiry Date

Greenwashing – What to Look Out For

Lots of  organisations want to appear environmentally friendly, but not all are taking the actions to make it happen. Here are six things to look out for to know if your favourite brand is really doing what they promise.

1.       Green buzzwords

By far, one of the most popular tactics used by companies is using words such as ‘eco-friendly’, ‘natural’, ‘organic’, ‘conscious’, ‘vegan’ and ‘environmentally friendly’. It’s hard to quantify just what these words mean – for example, a ‘conscious’ product could mean it’s sustainably sourced, is recyclable or has a small carbon footprint. However, without any explanation or evidence term is meaningless. In most cases, good brands provide a transparent explanation of their actions and can provide certificates to substantiate their claims. You can start by looking them up on Sustainablechoice.com, if they’re not listed on our site you can often find information on their own website. If you can’t find any explanations about the buzz words on the label… might be worth giving it a miss.

2. Scenes from nature that are unrelated to the product

Another over-used trick by companies is using beautiful images of pristine oceans, mountain ranges and exotic wildlife. They associate their brand with protected environments. Don’t be fooled by a pretty landscape. If you really want to purchase environmentally friendly products, start by turning over the label and reading on. If the only thing you see is a pretty picture, probably put it back on the shelf.

3. Claims not backed by an independent environment authority

A quick and reliable method to determine if a company is really doing what they say is to check if they’re verified by an environmental organisation. No verification? Their might be false. You can do this by looking the brand up on Sustainable Choice, checking the brand website or even searching a particular environmental organisation, like The Rainforest Alliance, to see if your favourite brand is a member. Good, honest companies often ally with global environmental organsations and it’s easy to find the information quickly!

4. Vague, unclear language

If an organisation has nothing to offer in the face of sustainability or eco-conscious choices, all too often, they make them up. These are easy to spot as they’re often vague and filled with fluffy language, with no evidence provided to back them. Take a moment to understand if there are clearly articulated commitments from the brand/product. Virtually any brand can claim to be environmentally friendly in some way or other, but without providing any details as to how the validity of the claims is dubious at best.

5. Distracting messages

This happens all too often – brands describing themselves as eco-friendly because a product is recyclable. However, this doesn’t negate the harmful and polluting processes they used to create the item in the first place.

An interesting opinion piece on the distracting messages on supermarket salmon.

6. Avoiding mention of a products entire lifecycle

We are all aware of the waste crisis underway worldwide, so when we buy a biodegradable product we believe we’re helping protect the world. However, companies often conceal the length of time taken to biodegrade, meaning that items could persist in the environment for dozens of years – unbeknownst to the consumer. Again, it’s all about reading past the buzz words and making an effort to understand the actions behind the messaging.

The Beginning of the End for Greenwashing?

September this year saw the UK Competition Watchdog give companies until the end of the year to quit making misleading claims about their environmental practices. The new guidelines will see greenwashing made illegal, and those found guilty past the deadline could face up to two years in prison. A variety of industries are being assessed, including food and drink, fashion and transport.

This step marks a transition in how seriously we take environmentally-friendly practices. It could force companies to change how they operate, benefitting both the environment and ourselves, as the consumer.

Meanwhile, in Australia, no specific laws ban greenwashing. However, current regulations that prohibit businesses from deceiving their customers should – theoretically – stop the practice. With more countries recognising greenwashing as a large enough problem to warrant its own legislation, fingers crossed Australia follows suit.

The best way for us to fight greenwashing is by making ourselves and others aware of the problem. By knowing what to look out for and taking a few extra moments to understand what we are buying, we can really make a difference.

Sustainability, much like product features, is an issue of supply and demand. As consumers, if we demand better products, demand more information and vote with our wallet we really do start to change the world, one shop at a time.

by Sustainable Choice