Greenwashing is the marketing technique of passing off a product, service or company as “greener” than it actually is. By Greener, I mean relative environmental friendliness. The term greenwashing was coined first in the 1980s and is more relevant than ever today. There are a set of guidelines which I will share below that we can all use as savvy green shoppers so we do not form a strong and false eco-relationship with a greenwashed product.
With greenwashing, the final customer looking for green products can be fooled. On this site, we are actively looking to reduce and ultimately remove plastic from the bathroom. We can be fooled and so can each layer of a supply chain for a company who may be genuinely trying to source material for a plastic-free or 100% biodegradable product (they are consumers too!). This could mean a final manufacturer and distributor could end up making errors and passing out a product that is not as green as they really intended or are telling the customer.
A 2010 study by Terachoice who is an independent testing and certification organisation revealed that 95% of green products are being greenwashed. For my none USA readers these principles are the same globally it is a global concern, you will just be dealing with varying certification bodies.
The full report can be found below and there is a game on the same site at http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/ to help you recognise which of the 7 greenwashing sins is occurring. It’s a good game and one that should be taught early – the next generation is going to have to be less easily duped if we are to succeed in the war against plastic or any other pollution.
Also, it may be time to hone your skills on certifications. Get familiar with legitimate environmental certification bodies
How to be a savvy green shopper
I’d encourage you to read the report or at least skim it and save it – it’s well written, nicely laid out and colourful. Have a go at the game – leave a comment with your score if you wish. Mine was 7 on my first run because I kept muddling 2 of the sins.
Let’s get this started with a video from when the report was produced. Some handy tips here. I hope I’m not the only one who thinks of Kermit when reading the title.
The greenwashing study by Terachoice laid out sins we can look out for to make us more savvy shoppers and better judges of advertising and news.
The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
The hidden trade-off occurs when one environmental issue is emphasised at the expense of potentially bigger concerns. In fact, this may be the most common sin.
The Sin of No Proof
The sin of No Proof happens when green claims are not grounded in evidence or third-party verified certification. Certification means a product has been tested to meet a pre-agreed set of standards.
The Sin of Vagueness
The sin of vagueness occurs when a marketing claim is so lacking in specifics as to be meaningless. ‘All-natural’ is an example of this Sin. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. There are lots of natural things that could be put in a product but that wouldn’t make the product green.
The Sin of Worshipping False Labels
The sin of worshipping false labels occurs when marketers create a false suggestion or certification-like image to mislead consumers into thinking that a product has been through a legitimate green certification process. They are trying to avoid The Sin of Proof by creating imaginary friends. Learn your certifications.
The Sin of Irrelevance
The Sin of Irrelevance arises when an environmental issue unrelated to the product is emphasised. One example is the claim that a product is ‘CFC-free’ since CFCs are banned by law.
The Sin of Lesser of 2 evils
The Sin of Lesser of 2 occurs when an environmental claim makes consumers feel ‘green’ about a product category that is itself lacking in environmental benefits. Organic cigarettes are an example of this Sin.
The Sin of Fibbing
The Sin of Fibbing is when environmental claims are outright false. One common example is products falsely claiming to be Energy Star certified.
Examples of Greenwashing
If you look up examples of greenwashing you will quickly find big companies with large accusations. To be honest these made the whole issue feel quite removed from me. It is almost as if they are so big I felt I could personally do little or nothing about it. A quick search on 2019 Greenwashing leads me to examples of information such as EARTH DAY 2019: COMPANIES ACCUSED OF GREENWASHING At truthinadvertising.org
Among others on their list were big car companies with clean diesel claims, chocolate companies with their sustainably sourced cocoa beans. The Rainforest Alliance was up in there as well. Other than now feeling informed I don’t feel I can do anything to tackle these giants.
Then I took another look at the list and realised what was happening. First of all – why is that list so short? The report in 2010 claimed 95% of green products are greenwashed surely it should be a bigger list? Well yes in its real essence, it should, I imagine be far more than a single post or indeed website could healthily examine. So then I realised this list had emerged from the large corporations and Big Box Stores arena.
If you managed to read the report at http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/ then you will have noted their assertion that one of the best ways to protect yourself from greenwashing was to purchase from the BIG STORES. That means using big chains etc. The reason being is that they have strict guidelines and are media monitored and they control their products in one central system for hundreds if not thousands of stores. The majority of the products that we may need to look at for greenwashing are not in this category instead they emerge from the so-called Green Boutiques. These Green Boutiques serve up the majority of our green products and sadly the vast majority of these will be guilty of greenwashing.
Now, this is personal! This is in my house. Indeed it is not easy being green.
CALL TO ACTION – become a savvy green shopper and drive the change
Please bear in mind just because a product is portraying one of these sins it does not mean we should automatically not buy it. A considered approach needs to be adopted and you really need to weigh the product against what the originally truly not green product was. Then with an open educated mindset decide if it is a better alternative.
It would be good to ask what certification a product would need to reach a point that it could be accepted into Big Box Stores. An example of this would be don’t petition your big chemist chain to stock bamboo toothbrushes – instead, ask why they are not. It is possible that this will begin a dialogue on the testing of the claims made by such products. Then you have something to discuss with the makers of products.
It is acceptable to ask a company to explain or prove any environmental claims a company makes regarding its own policies or in the makeup of a product.
If you wish to stop a company committing such sins – please point out to them that you have noticed that something is unclear, unverified, fibby etc.