What is Greenwashing?

How to avoid greenwashing

Amelia Lucas
Dr. Gabrielle Bourret-Sicotte
What is Greenwashing?
Research Eco-Credentials

“Made with 100% natural cotton”

You’ve seen this quote before, haven’t you? But what does it actually mean from a sustainability aspect? Well in truth… not that much. All this label says is that the cotton used is 100% natural (as you would expect with cotton being a natural plant fibre). This does not mean that all of the product is made from cotton, for example the garment could be composed of 2% [100% natural] cotton and 98% polyester.

Such phrases, which can sometimes be misleading, are contributing to the issue of what is known as ‘greenwashing’.

In recent years, social responsibility and climate action has made its way up both the individual consumer and corporate agendas. As a population we are (finally) becoming increasingly conscious of our carbon footprint and there is growing pressure for businesses and brands to be more sustainable. In general, this could be perceived as a good outcome: brands are investing more in becoming sustainable, consumers are more aware of the environmental cost of their lifestyles and the planet is better for it. In practice however, some corporations are using this rising movement as a marketing and revenue generating opportunity through greenwashing.

Greenwashing is often defined as a tactic “to make people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is."

It is an advertising strategy used by companies to capitalise on the growing demand for environmentally friendly goods and services. This helps them generate positive publicity, boost their brand image and increase profits without reducing their carbon footprint or their consumption of scarce resources.

This marketing strategy is more common than you would imagine. Whether or not you have heard of it before, you almost certainly would have fallen victim to it, here are some common recent examples…

Public cases of greenwashing in the past:

  1. In 2018, McDonald’s introduced their big switch from plastic to paper straws in the UK. At first glance, making McDonald’s use less plastic seems like a good policy. However, further research revealed that due to the UK’s recycling infrastructure the new paper straws being used were not recyclable, and that by changing the straws but not the plastic cups themselves (which make up the majority of plastic use for McDonald’s drinks) would have no significant impact in reducing their consumption of single-use plastic. (Davis, 2019)

  2. BMW’s ‘100% joy, 0% emission’ campaign suggested that the car had 0% Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG). However, the sole manufacturing of the car uses resources and releases GHG - making this claim not quite true. The campaign received a lot of backlash leading to BMW highlighting the phrase ‘when driving’ in their marketing material and limiting the claim without referring to the entire life cycle of the car. It was deemed however, that the use of “0% emission” was misleading, the advertisement was banned in the UK and BMW was issued a warning to refrain from making such claims in the future. (Brownsell, 2010)

  3. In 2018, Starbucks advertised a “plastic straw ban” by introducing a new straw-less lids. They advertised this as a sustainable policy, but it was calculated that the new lid contained even more plastic than the previous lid and straw put together. This is another example of a corporation greenwashing a campaign to boost their sustainable image.

Greenwashing is extremely detrimental to the environment as it misleads consumers who are trying to make more sustainable choices. Greenwashing also makes way for brands to overcharge consumers by deceiving them with false green credentials. They justify the higher price point being caused by the product being beneficial to the environment and therefore more expensive to produce, when in fact the company absorbs all of the profit.

How to spot Greenwashing:

Unlike genuine sustainable products, greenwashed products are not backed up by scientific facts or third-party authentications.

Pay closer attention to the following claims which could be greenwashing:

  • “All-natural”

  • “Eco-friendly”

  • “Green”

  • “Vegan”

  • “Cruelty-free”

Check for: 1. Vague Claims 2. False Claims 3. Irrelevant Claims

These terms are often used for their connotations. However, since there are no strict regulations on their usage in advertisements, they lack any scientific credibility. Be wary of vague assertions and instead check whether the labels are truly legitimate by researching whether or not they are backed by factual information (such as the ingredients list being 100% organic) or third-party authentications.

For example, the following include some approved seals to recognise and look for:

  1. Blue Angel in Germany (created in 1978),

  2. Nordic Swan Ecolabel in Nordic countries (1989)

  3. Austrian Ecolabel (1990)

  4. The EU Ecolabel, managed by the European Commission and Member States

Consumers that care for the environment have the opportunity and responsibility to distinguish brands that are greenwashing. As you have seen, it is often hard to decipher the true climate-warriors from the marketing bluffs but we believe it is important to hold those organisations accountable to continue our path to a Greenr future.

Additional certifications include: USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project, Fair Trade Certified, and Rainforest Alliance Certified, Salmon-Safe, Green Seal, Energy Star, Bird-Friendly, FSC, Demeter

(Check out additional labels here)