Greenwashing is a term many have heard of, but perhaps do not know the true meaning behind. It is certainly one of those buzzwords that float around the environmental landscape, but is rarely thought about in depth. However, it is certainly an important concept to know and look out for, as greenwashing is a marketing tool and tactic that many companies use to manipulate consumers. Most companies use greenwashing to entice consumers to think they are doing good for the environment by buying or purchasing their products, when really they are not. This blog post aims to analyze greenwashing as a concept, and ask the tough (but necessary) questions of how and why companies choose to market in this manner.
What is Greenwashing?
On a basic level, greenwashing is the term used to describe a marketing tactic that companies use to make you think their project, company (as a whole) or product is environmentally friendly, when really, it is not. This marketing is done through adverts, campaigns, products and other media sources to target consumers who have an environmentally conscious purchasing methodology and then capitalize on it.
Greenwashing has become a trend in marketing in recent years due to a change in consumer purchasing habits. People are now looking for ways to be environmentally sustainable in their life, including within their purchases. Many people, myself included, are even willing to pay a premium for products that are produced in a sustainable manner or help the environment in one way or another. Capitalizing on this niche market is smart, but only if it is done with good intentions (like the product is actually sustainable or environmentally friendly). The issue that greenwashing brings to light is that many products that make these environmental claims are far from sustainable. Not only is this an unethical way of conducting business, it perpetuates a misguided trust between consumer and producer.
Why Do Companies Greenwash?
More often than not, companies choose to greenwash because it adds profit to their bottom line. Given that it is a marketing tactic to entice consumers to purchase, there really is no other main motivation behind the strategy other than profit. The more you consume, the more the company makes.
However, in addition to increasing their profit margins, companies often use this unethical marketing strategy to cover-up otherwise environmentally degrading projects or products. You will see this a lot with oil companies and food manufacturers (two very large industries!). Putting an environmental spin on items or projects makes the average consumer not think twice about purchasing or supporting the company. It gives consumers that instant ‘feel good feeling’ just by making a purchase.
In relation to the cover up method of the marketing strategy, you’ll find that some parent companies will purposely start environmental companies as part of their brand, even though their main company is bad for the environment. Again, this is quite evident with major food manufacturers (many companies will release an ‘organic’ version of their products to diversify their consumer market), in addition to other large corporations that have multiple small companies under one corporate head.
Without being too specific, I wanted to discuss some of the main products and items that come to mind when I think of greenwashing.
We’ve talked about it before, but it needs to be brought up again. Even though a package says it is recyclable, you need to check your local recycling guidelines to truly know if an item is recyclable. My biggest pet peeve when it comes to packaging and greenwashing are companies that offer ‘eco-friendly’ refills for soap, shampoo or even yogurt. These refills often come in a rigid plastic bag with a pour spout of some kind, so that you can ‘refill’ your smaller plastic bottle. Although this seems like a great environmental initiative because you do not have to buy more plastic packaging, it really is not. Although something can be said about the lack of landfill space these collapsible refills take up, these refillable bags are not recyclable in any capacity, making them less sustainable than the original packaging of that product (i.e. soap containers).
2. Companies that release an ‘eco-friendly’ version
As stated above, you will often see this with large corporations that want to appeal to a larger market. You will see this in all kinds of companies and industries, but it is really prevalent in food manufacturing, soaps (including laundry, dish, and hand soaps), and even clothing. For example, many food brands will come up with an organic alternative for those shopping for that level of grocery item, but at the end of the day, you are still supporting the same company that does not have the environment in mind for all of their products. Generally, these products are offered at a higher price point as well, making the consumer think they are doing better for the environment (and in some ways they are), but still supporting the company that doesn’t truly have those same aligned sustainability goals.
3. Paper straws
Although anything moving to paper over plastic is better in one way or another, this strategy that SO many fast food restaurants have used gives consumers a false sense of ‘this company cares about the environment.’ If these companies do not give a place for consumers to properly compost these straws (compost bin), they end up in the landfill just like plastic straws (although break down much faster then the plastic counterparts, which is good). They are still an environmental win, do not get me wrong (save the turtles!), but they really relay to the consumer a false claim that the company is environmentally friendly. Switching to paper straws is a very low hanging fruit initiative for multi-billion dollar companies that claim to ‘care about the environment.’
How To Spot Greenwashing
Greenwashing is all around us and it is more important now than ever to spot it before making a purchase. If you are going to be paying a premium for a product because it has helped the environment in some way or another, you want to make sure your money is supporting the right companies.
Some of the main jargon used to describe products that are made to look environmentally friendly, but really aren’t, are:
- Recyclable (where facilities exist)
- Cruelty Free
- Sustainability sourced
These words hold no value and really, mean nothing on a marketing label. There are no regulations or guidelines that companies need to meet to put these words on their products, and yet, they still entice the average consumer (I am super guilty of it myself!). Unless there is a third party regulation involved to certify the products, there is likely no truth or value in the words on a marketing label. Marketing departments and teams do not make greenwashing easy to spot, which is why consumers must be more diligent and skeptical of all media and marketing campaigns.
Unfortunately, with greenwashing all around us, the average consumer has to do some digging in order to figure out if a company is greenwashing or not. Unless they are using the words above to describe the product, or it just blatantly is not environmentally friendly, it is a tough thing to navigate. Luckily google is a helpful resource for this, and with information at your fingertips, finding out this information has never been easier.
One way to help guide yourself in this greenwashing era is being able to identify third party logos such as FairTrade, USDA Organic, Non-GMO, etc. These companies are able to help you verify that the product you are buying has gone through their strict regulations to be able to use their logo. Although this can sometimes still ‘muddy the waters’ so to speak, it is a good starting point.
Although hard to spot, trying to avoid products, projects or items that use greenwashing as a sales technique is important in today’s ever-changing marketplace. More and more consumers want to purchase sustainability and companies are trying their very best to make money off that mindset – whether they do so ethically or unethically. The next time you go to buy a sustainable product, just do a quick google search to see if that company actually does what they claim to do and if supporting them is something you want to do. What you find might surprise you, either way.
However, be mindful that this way of shopping is not always reasonable and is time consuming. To start, try to develop a small list of products or brands that you know are sustainable and go from there. As usual, environmentalism does not happen overnight and the same goes for this. Once you start noticing more and more greenwashing adverts and products around you, you will be able to navigate the marketplace better. Until then, just try your best!