Imagine this: you’re doing your groceries, standing in front of the chocolate section.
You’re browsing and browsing. You’re about to get your go-to chocolate bar, but suddenly, you see next to it other bars with the words ZERO ADDED SUGARS printed in colorful bold letters. Wow. It must be healthy, then.
Tell me, which one do you choose? The second one, right?
What the bold letters on the wrapping don’t tell you is that, instead of added sugars, the snack contains a load of synthetic, lab-made, bad-bad sweeteners to keep the sweet flavor.
I mean, technically they’re not lying, there’s no real sugar. But the lack of sugar doesn’t mean that this chocolate will be healthier than your good ol’ bar of choc, but for some reason, you buy it.
What is greenwashing?
Why you choose the fancy chocolate is all about marketing.
And the same goes for greenwashing. It’s the same tricky technique to hide the ugly truth – or rather, paint “happy little trees” (if you get the Bob Ross reference, be my friend) over it to turn it green, eco-friendly, fair trade, sustainable, and all the other tags that sell.
Let’s see some examples that I find absolutely hilarious:
- This TV ad from the 80s by Chevron (oil company) where pipelines are great hiding spots for foxes, thus making oil SUPER ECO-FRIENDLY.
- This eco water bottle made of plastic. But, don’t worry! It has 15-20% less plastic than a regular bottle, so it’s basically zero waste. We’re in the clear!
- Biodegradable plastic bags that have been marketed as eco-friendly because they disintegrate, but, well, they need industrial facilities to “biodegrade” and they contain toxic metals.
- Coffee chains making us believe we can recycle their single-use cups *laughs in environmentalist*
- Fast fashion brands making one sustainable fashion collection, and focusing all their marketing efforts on that specific campaign without addressing other ethical and environmental issues. Awkwaaard.
And we can go on and on for days, friends.
Can you see the common element in all these cases?
Many companies just try to shift your attention to the 1% of things that they’re doing great, so that you ignore the other 99% of shady stuff they do. It’s about getting you to choose their product over the one next to it just because of questionable, irrelevant or blatantly false sustainability claims.
And don´t get me wrong, if these were genuine attempts to do better, I’d be the first one to praise them, but they’re just trying to trick us and get away with it.
How to spot and avoid greenwashing?
While greenwashing can hide behind maaaany different masks, with tons of different fancy marketing strategies, there are a few things that can help you know when you’re about to be greenwashed. So beware of these red flags!
1. Vague language
If the tag of a product is full of buzzwords, be cautious!
This is easy to spot because they’re usually very vague and they really don’t communicate anything. ‘Bio’, ‘green’. ‘organic’, ‘eco’, ‘pure’, ‘natural’,…They really mean nothing if there’s nothing to back them up.
Do you know those annoying questions in high school exams asking you to justify your answer? This is the same. If they can claim they’re eco-whatever, they should be able to say why.
Usually, a quick Google search about the product or just reading the small print will clear things up.
2. Ideal images
If you’re about to buy anything with a packaging that shows a pristine lake, a big mountain with a snowy mountaintop, or a green valley full of lilies, know that you miiiight be greenwashed.
Bottled water uses these images a lot. And needless to say, plastic + these landscapes are not compatible.
I’ve also seen this in many car commercials, which is as well pretty out of place if you think about it.
3. The bigger picture
Try to see the bigger picture.
Maybe one campaign convinces you of the greenness of a company. But ask yourself twice: is that really the case? Is sustainability one of the core values of the company? Or they’re looking for attention and sales?
A dead giveaway is when a company claims to be ULTRA-HYPER-SUPER eco-friendly. When a brand is that loud about being green, chances are it’s not.
You’d be shocked to know that some of the greenest companies out there actually admit their imperfections – a great example is Everlane in their mission statement. It’s called savoir faire ladies and gents.
You can learn more about this in my post about how to know if a fashion brand is truly sustainable.
4. They make promises
If the brand promises that it’ll plant 3 trees for each purchase, be careful. Ok, they might plant trees, but who can guarantee that the brand is taking care of the environment in other ways? If they plant those trees, but on the other side they use intensively fossil fuels, excessive plastic, toxic materials,… They’re actually not doing anything good for the environment.
We can also include brands that trumpet their investment in carbon offsets.
Let’s get this straight: carbon offsets are GREAT, but if we don’t reduce our emissions in the first place, they’re as effective as putting a bandaid over a broken leg.
5. And you: use your intuition
Sometimes the type of product itself can tell you whether it’s sustainable or not.
Plastic water bottles: not eco-friendly. Fuel cars: not eco-friendly. Fast fashion: not eco-friendly.
Objectively, some products are unsustainable by nature. So any claim about their eco-friendliness is probably bs.
There’s sometimes a grey area
In some cases, companies may not know they’re greenwashing.
Sometimes their efforts to make a greener brand are genuine, but they find themselves ‘unintentionally’ greenwashing – and I’d hate to criticize that!
Other times, at least in my opinion, there’s a grey area where we can consider that a brand is greenwashing, but not really. So that leaves us in the fence most often than not.
For example, Nordstrom getting into the second-hand fashion business. Are they just a big company taking advantage of the growth of the sustainable fashion movement in order to sell more and use sustainability as a marketing tool? Or are they really making an effort and trying to move to a more sustainable business model?
I don’t really know how I feel about cases like that, but I’d love to know your opinion in the comments below!