Green Initiatives Guide To Greenwashing – Part 1: Are you being ‘Greenwashed?

Published on by Green Initiatives

You have chosen to be an environmentally conscious consumer and you’re on your way to changing your habits in order to tread lightly on the planet. You carry your refillable bottle, reusable shopping bags, avoid disposable cutlery and plastic bags, buy fresh foods from local markets, avoid things that come unnecessarily packaged.

While you hope your favorite shampoo will soon come in an environmentally friendly alternative to the plastic bottle, are you also looking beyond the label? Is a green label enough to convince you that you are being sustainable?

It follows naturally that whenever you are out shopping, your eyes search for environmentally friendly labels  such as “100% natural”, “organic”, “recyclable”, “made from recycled materials”, “farm fresh”, “cruelty free”, “eco-friendly”, “not tested on animals”, etc. You are even willing to shell out the extra bucks to buy goods that have a smaller negative impact on the planet.

Yet, while you deserve accolades for choosing to be a conscious consumer, you also need to beware that you are not being “greenwashed’!

The market is awash with green labels- can they all be trusted?

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the “act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.” (1)

Industries have woken up to the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly environmentally aware, and while some companies are earnestly undertaking environmentally friendly initiatives, others are simply duping well-meaning consumers through unsubstantiated claims and clever advertising in order to make their products appear more favourable.

Green advertisements usually show the relationship between a product and the environment or it displays the environmentally responsible image of the corporation (Banerjee, Gulas and Iyer, 1995).

Companies and organisations engaged in greenwashing often spend much more time and money to promote a “green” public image through marketing and advertising than on the actual tangible measures they take to minimize their environmental impact.

As more and more companies make green claims, we must beware to not trust these claims blindly and try to scrutinise them carefully to avoid being greenwashed.

How is greenwashing being done?

The most common ways companies try to pull this off is done by environmental cost camouflaged, lack of evidence, being uncertain, creating fake labels, providing irrelevant information, comparing two negative impacts and giving false information. These 7 forms of manipulation were characterised in 2007 by TerraChoice (an environmental marketing agency under UL Global Networking, an American safety consulting and certification company) into the Seven Sins: (Know more about these here)

  1. Hidden Trade-Off: Economic action that aims at solving one problem but entails another, forcing a choice. It occurs when an environmental issue is emphasised to the detriment of more serious issues.
  2. No Proof: It happens when the affirmations are not supported by means of certification tests. A common example are the packaging that contains information about how the percentages of recycled content.
  3. Vagueness: It occurs when the call is as sensitive to particulars as it is meaningless. "Natural" is an example of this sin. Arsenic, uranium, mercury and formaldehyde are all natural and poisonous. "Natural" is not "green".
  4. Worshiping False Labels: When a company creates an idea, or an image similar to a certification to induce consumers to think that it is a product passed through a green product certification process.
  5. Irrelevance: This problem arises when an environmental problem is not related to the product is emphasised. An example is a claim that a product is "CFC-free," since the use of CFCs is prohibited by law.
  6. Lesser of Two-Evils: A product that has no environmental benefits tries to market itself as a “green” product, for example: Organic cigarretes.
  7. Fibbing: That's when environmental claims are false. A common example is to falsely be energy saving certification products.

The following year, Ed Gillespie added 3 additional sins to the list:

  1. Suggestive pictures: Using images that imply a baseless green impact. Often companies employ the marketing stunt of changing the logo or packaging to green colour to suggest an environmentally friendly image without the product having any such actual qualities.
  2. Just not credible: A claim that mentions the environmentally friendly attributes of a dangerous or environmentally hazardous product. eg- organic cigarettes.
  3. Gobbledygook: the use of jargon and/or information that the average person cannot readily understand or be able to verify. Overly technical terms to confuse the consumer and appear environment friendly.

Gillespie revised TerraChoice’s original sins. (Gillespie, 2008)

After reading the examples above, do you feel you were ever greenwashed?

On our next piece we will share the industries where greenwashing commonly occur, it might surprise you. You might discover you have been caught up in this trap. The good news is that knowledge can give you the power to change your actions, raise awareness of others around you and even pressure companies to provide real and responsible products.

The above is the first article in a 3-part series on Greenwashing. The articles were written by a group of volunteers over a period of time. (Here's links to Part 1 Part 3)

Green Initiatives would like to give a sincere thanks to each one of them: Tania ChenGus RickAndrew FreidenthalMargrethe WandallParul RewalEllie Davenport and Maria Souza.