These days, it’s hip to be green, sustainable, and socially conscious. Many companies use green marketing tactics to promote themselves. They might say that they’re using recycled materials, or that they’ve reduced waste by using less packaging. But these claims aren’t always true.
The regulation around claims such as these is iffy at best, and non-existent most of the time. Technically, it’s legal to call pretty much anything sustainable or green. Green gasoline anyone???
Greenwashing is basically lying. It’s using marketing tactics to promote your company as sustainable, while not really doing anything to reduce impact on the planet.
For a more academic version, Investopedia defines greenwashing as:
Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound.
Needless to say, as consumers, this is incredibly frustrating. We’re out there trying to make the best decisions we can with the products we purchase. If along the way we’re being being lied to, then the process of trying to do the right thing for the planet becomes complicated by ten fold. Uggh.
Here’s how to spot greenwashing.
If a company uses green marketing tactics to make itself seem more eco-friendly than it really is, then it’s called greenwashing. It’s not necessarily illegal, but it’s unethical.
One well known example of this was when Volkswagon was touting the low emissions and eco-friendliness of its vehicles. Meanwhile they were cheating on emissions tests and in actuality their vehicles were polluting at 40 times the allowable limit.
Currently, H&M is being sued for greenwashing. They were making claims about low water usage for a conscious collection, and it turned out that those clothes were actually using more water.
All in, as consumers, we unfortunately have to do more due diligence than look at the marketing for a product to know that our purchases are not causing more harm than good. To avoid falling victim to tactics like H&M greenwashing continue reading.
Look at their environmental impact.
To spot greenwashing, look at how companies describe themselves. Do they use words like “eco-friendly,” “green” or “environmentally conscious”? Are there any other terms used to describe them? How do they compare with competitors?
Fuzzy terminology like this is a red flag for greenwashing. If you can find them, it’s always better to look for specificity, and if possible numbers reported. For example, my snowboarding coat says that it uses three plastic bottles in the making of the cost. This is a lot more promising than if they just said “eco-friendly”, because seriously, what does that even mean?
Check out their social media presence.
If a company has an active Facebook page, Twitter account, or Instagram account, check out what they say about themselves. Does their description match up with their claims? Is there anything suspicious about their posts?
Within any organization, the social media team is generally not involved in the day to day work with product creation. Most likely, they don’t actually know what’s happening on ground and just post what they are told. In general, I don’t have a lot of trust in what larger companies have to say on social media.
See what they’re doing about sustainability.
Look at how companies talk about their products and services. Do they use words like “eco-friendly” or “green”? Are they using recycled materials? Do they mention any environmental benefits?
One of the biggest things I look out for are donations. If a company is just saying that they like to throw money at good causes, I mean that’s cool and all, but when push comes to shove and the stock prices drop, that will be the first item in the budget to get cut.
Instead, I’d rather see sustainability being built into the day to day of the business. For example, imagine a world where Coca-Cola decided to stop using plastic and contributing to that plastic island in the pacific. That could be the catalyst for major change in the world. Instead they donate 1% of their operating income.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have benefited from that generosity, and sure it’s cool that they’re donating, but to me it reads like lipstick on a pig.
Find out whether they have any certification or accreditation.
If a company claims to be eco-friendly, ask them to show you proof. You should also check with other sources to see what they say about the company.
There are a wide variety of certifications that a company can apply for, and many of them have rigorous criteria to pass the accreditation. If a company is laying claim to major sustainable overhauls, but doesn’t have the backing of a certification, that’s a red flag for greenwashing potential.
Now that being said, because of the difficulty of attaining certain certifications, there are some really cool companies out there that don’t have them. I worked with coffee farmers in Honduras for a bit and learned that it was incredibly difficult and expensive to become certified organic. So even though their practices went above and beyond many farmers who are certified, they weren’t able to get the actual stamp of approval.
Check out their supply chain.
If you see a company claiming to be “green” but its products come from suppliers who aren’t as eco-friendly, then there’s a good chance that the company isn’t really doing much to help the environment, nor the wellbeing of the employees of their suppliers.
This is really tricky, because it takes extensive research to look under the hood of a company’s supply chain. Most of us, myself included, don’t really have the time.
Rather than try to research the supply chains of every single item you buy (bah grocery shopping hell!) instead give it a go with major purchases like cars.
See what they say about their products.
Look at the company’s website and social media pages to find out more about how it makes its products. Are they using recycled materials? Do they use sustainable energy sources? What kind of packaging does the company use? How do they treat their employees?
Remember to take what they say with a grain of salt, especially if it’s not specific or quantifiable.
Find out whether they’re using recycled materials.
The circular economy is really really cool. At its most basic, it’s about using resources for as long as possible, whether or not it’s through recycling, re-use, or refurbishing.
There are so many viable materials left floating around in dumps or in the ocean. Many of these materials are still viable. Any company participating in reducing this waste is light years ahead of the competition.
An example of this is Adidas, who is looking at a shoe recycling model. They offer rewards to people who send their shoes back to the company for refurbishing and reselling.
It’s tough to be a conscious consumer and investor in this climate where it’s easier for companies to make a claim than to actually make a change. However, it is possible to get past some of the marketing BS and find some really incredible work out there.