What the heck is greenwashing? (and how do we stop it?)

Updated: Aug 1

Greenwashing is a term bandied around a lot these days. It refers to situations where companies convey a false impression, or provide misleading information, about being environmentally friendly when they're not.


Why do companies bother greenwashing?

Greenwashing helps boost public image, and generates more sales. It's invaluable at a time when more and more consumers are searching for sustainable products and services, and is why we've seen a surge in companies advertising as many eco-benefits as possible.


Although it might sound harmless, greenwashing can cause confusion (by distracting from true eco-friendly initiatives), and spread false information. It convinces well-meaning consumers to make bad choices.


Examples of greenwashing include: [1-2]

  • Inconsequential actions. Promoting a small ‘green’ feature whilst ignoring bigger environmental issues, e.g. a fast food company promoting a switch to recyclable paper straws, while still using polystyrene food containers.

  • Vagueness. Using broad or poor definitions to cause confusion. For example, a recycling symbol on packaging without detailing which part can be recycled.

  • Lack of proof. Grand sustainability claims that can’t be checked or certified.

  • Green buzzwords or images. Packaging with lots of natural scenes, images, and wording, but no details to back these up (e.g. stating 'vegan approved' without being certified by the Vegan Society).

  • Redundant/irrelevant claims. Claims that aren't needed (e.g. products labelled 'plant-based' when they would be anyway), or claims that are technically true but are irrelevant to a product's impact on the environment (e.g. bin bags labelled 'recyclable', when they're destined for landfill).

  • Carbon offsetting. A way for companies to make up for the pollution they create, instead of reducing it. This is usually done by paying others, and is greenwashing because it still means CO2 is being created.

On this subject it's important to note that Green Up Britain is very careful not to work with companies and individuals who are greenwashing. It's why we've never, like other companies, calculated the amount of carbon offset through tree planting. Trees grow at different rates in different locations, different species capture carbon at varying rates, and the amount of carbon captured by a tree is dependent on its size and survival. Together, this makes it impossible to calculate the true amount of carbon offset by the number of trees put in the ground. We feel very strongly about this, and only plant native species in well-planned locations. Our aim is to restore nature to mitigate climate change. See more here.

The danger of greenwashing is obvious, it enables companies to keep selling planet-damaging products to well-meaning individuals. But not every company claiming to do right thing by the environment is greenwashing, and in this case they're green marketing. These are companies who are genuinely selling products that are free of toxic materials, are manufactured sustainably, packaged minimally, and are biodegradable, reuseable or recyclable.

Green marketing vs greenwashing

To identify green marketing, just look for companies that:

  • Offer a recycling program for their products

  • Explain a product’s positive impact on the environment in plain language

  • Have clear marketing claims about packaging, the product, or portion of either

  • Provides evidence to substantiate claims

  • Have trusted third-party certifications such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), etc

How can we stop greenwashing?

The best way to end greenwashing is to know what to look out for. This way we can identify corporations who are greenwashing, and ensure those who are doing right by the planet stand out for their choices. We consumers have to power to give our money to brands who deserve it.


By making better buying choices, we can shift the entire market place, and hold corporations to a higher standard. Let's shake-up the system now, to mitigate further damage to our climate and fragile planet.


References:

1. https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/what-is-greenwashing/

2. https://www.ecowatch.com/greenwashing-guide-2655331542.html