We’ve all seen countless advertisements from brands we know aren’t eco-friendly posting about their feats in the arena of sustainability and environmentalism, but what many don’t realize is that these can oftentimes be falsified claims.
Let’s talk about ‘Greenwashing’.
What is Greenwashing?
A simple way to define greenwashing is a company’s act of spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing their impact on our environment. It’s a marketing gimmick that is deceitful and intended to mislead the public and those consumers who buy mainly or only environmentally conscious brands.
The term itself has been around since 1986, coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, but the phenomena has only gotten worse since then.
Why is Greenwashing so bad?
The issues arise when a consumer is blatantly being lied to. No one wants that, and the backlash is rarely enough to dissuade companies from taking this approach again in the future. You would think that advertisements that lie would be banned, but it’s all about the wording. If the business is clever with their wording, they can get away with almost anything!
Brands like H&M and BP, who neither have good track records when it comes to environmental efforts, have been guilty of greenwashing their products or services in order to reap the benefits of appearing to care about our planet.
Why do companies do it?
Money. Companies realize the massive amount of enthusiasm towards environmentally conscious products and services and want to jump on the bandwagon while putting in less than the bare minimum.
According to Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers will spend more on a product if they think it comes from a sustainable brand. The figure is even higher with millennials, jumping to 73%. Brands want to take advantage of this and take in as much cash as possible, however they can, even if it’s immoral.
Let’s use H&M as an example. If you haven’t heard, H&M released a conscious line of clothing that is said to be ethically sourced and made with sustainable materials and practices. The main issue with this is that there is little to no proof of this being true, while the second issue is that even if we were to buy only their conscious line we would still be supporting the fast fashion side to the brand and all that comes with it. They made this line look so good that people were intrigued and misled to believe they were making a green choice, when in fact that is not the case.
We should give H&M a bit of credit though (I never thought I would say that), being the second largest fashion retailer in the world their small changes have a huge ripple effect, both positive and negative. They are making strides in the right direction, like recycling old clothes, using sustainable materials, using renewable energy and implementing living wages, but the conscious line still feels deceitful. If a brand of this size can manage to make a whole line like this, why not make their entire brand stand for this?
This brings us to the idea that though this marketing gimmick is deceitful, it can often be rooted more in over-enthusiasm than malicious intent, which could very well be the case with H&M.
How do we spot Greenwashing?
This is the tricky part. Without in depth research, or a lot of pre-existing knowledge of a brand, it’s hard to tell if they are greenwashing or just being honest. What I’ve found helpful was something I found in Futerra’s 2015 Selling Sustainability Report, where 10 basic marketing tactics to avoid are laid out simply and clearly.
- Fluffy Language
When brands use too much fluff language without showing what they mean.
- Green Product vs. Dirty Company
‘Green’ products made by fast fashion brands or mass production. This ties directly to our H&M comments above!
- Suggestive Pictures
When brands use pictures that suggest that they are green when they aren’t. Think flowers coming out of smoke stacks or exhaust pipes – ew.
- Irrelevant Claims
When brands focus in on one tiny green attribute when the rest of a product/picture is completely anti-green.
- Best in Class?
Be very wary of brands who state they’re the best in their industry when is comes to green initiatives. Being slightly greener than the rest of an industry means very little if the rest of the industry is truly awful.
- Just not Credible
Be careful of brands who start ‘greening’ dangerous or untested products. This applies directly to essential oil companies saying how since their products are clean and green that you can ingest them, when that is untrue, dangerous and completely untested.
When brands use big words or jargon only a scientist could understand. If the brand is unable to explain what they’re doing in lamens terms, it’s likley hiding something.
- No Proof
This is an easy one, if there is no proof or evidence provided, don’t buy it.
- Out-right Lying
When a brand is clearly fabricating data or claims.
- Imaginary Friends
When a label looks like a third part endorsement when is isn’t.
What I personally look out for, mind you, is just how transparent a company really is about their processes and practices. If you can’t find the information you need on their website, that alone is a red flag.
But don’t forget about that packaging! You can often spot greenwashed products by just paying closer attention to the package. Check the ingredients, make sure that the product is actually green and not just using the colour to trick you.
Even those most familiar with green products can slip up every now and again, don’t be too hard on yourself if this happens to you. We’ve all been there and greenwashing is a manipulation tactic after all, it’s meant to make us slip up. All we can do is learn from our experiences and keep working to do better and spread awareness on the issue.
What’s the difference between Green Marketing and Greenwashing?
When it comes to green marketing, the brand is actually being honest, transparent and practical. Products that are using green marketing are manufactured in a sustainable fashion, free of toxic materials or ozone depleting substances, and do not use excessive packaging. Products advertised in this way are made from renewable resources, able to be recycled and/or use recycled materials and are repairable rather than disposable. So all in all, green marketing is advertising actual green products.
The only way that green marketing can become greenwashing is if the organization doesn’t follow through or live up to the standards of sustainable business practices that they’re claiming they do. Don’t just believe a company who calls themselves eco-friendly, organic, natural or green, these words can be used to confuse or mislead you! Dig deep before supporting brands who claim to be any of these things.
Why does any of this matter?
I’m sure this will go without saying, but knowledge is power. In this case, knowledge is the power to say no to brands who are deceptive. Everyone should have the right to an informed choice when it comes to our purchasing behaviour, and I hope this helps you out down the line when deciding on the next pair of shoes or new fall sweater!
Written by Emily Van Dyk
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