Washing away Greenwashing

To say there’s been a revolution in attitudes towards living more sustainably in recent years is an understatement. Programs such as Blue Planet II and increasing evidence of humans’ detrimental impact on the environment have led more and more people to take action to reduce their negative effect on the planet, and demand the corporations they buy from do the same.

For the companies that are responsible for large amounts of this pollution and harm to the environment, this has been a bit of a spanner in the works of their smooth-running business plans that monopolise the planet and all it has to offer. And many of them, instead of actually making the change demanded by consumers to be more eco-friendly, resort to greenwashing. Once you look out for it, it’s everywhere.

But what exactly is greenwashing? It’s a term that’s batted around quite a bit in the environmental sphere, and it’s one of the most frustrating things to face as both an environmentalist and a consumer. Greenwashing is where companies market themselves to be more environmentally friendly than they actually are, which misleads eco-conscious consumers to keep buying/using their product or service.

A great example of this is in the energy industry – with more people looking for renewable energy to power their homes, energy companies have resorted to marketing campaigns that mislead customers into thinking they supply fully ‘green’ energy. Companies display slogans like “100% green energy”, “Britain’s greenest energy supplier”, “real, green energy” (these are all real claims made by energy companies in the UK). But, when you look deeper below the superficial marketing gloss, you can see that these statements are far from true.
So, how do we avoid being misled by companies, and ensure that our money is going to businesses that truly value the planet over profit? There are some key signs that might indicate a company is greenwashing:

1. They use environmental buzzwords. How many times have you seen a company branding itself as “green”, or launching “conscious” ranges of clothing (looking at you, H&M). If you look at the actual evidence of these statements, you can often see there’s a big gulf between the sustainable practices they advertise, and what their supply chain actually looks like.

2. They sacrifice cost in exchange for something else. Okay, looking at price isn’t a fool-proof method to catch out greenwashing – luxury brands can be unsustainable despite their cost, as can affordable products be environmentally conscious! But the chances are if your ‘sustainable’ products are cheap as dirt, they’re likely not as green as they make out. Cutting cost often means sacrificing something else along the line, whether that’s through cheap material usage or the exploitation of workers (in particular children and women) around the world.

3. Look at their accreditations. What proof do they have of the certifications that they claim to have? This is actually a great way to avoid greenwashing too! Certified B Corporations are companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, which indicates they’re taking more legitimate action to be sustainable.

4. The sustainable products come from a company with a history of being… well, unsustainable. If a company brings out a specifically green range, it’s likely that the rest of their products are not great for the planet in the first place.

5. What they claim to be sustainable actually isn’t. Take biodegradable plastics – many companies are switching to bioplastics instead of reducing their plastic production to begin with. Many ‘eco-friendly’ bioplastics aren’t actually biodegradable in the natural environment, and can only be broken down in industrial composters. To make this worse, companies such as Nestle that switch to packaging their water and similar products in bioplastics actually mislead consumers further by encouraging recycling of these bottles – bioplastics are classed as contaminants in recycling in many cases. So not only are these companies greenwashing, but they’re also creating more problems by encouraging incorrect and unsustainable habits in their customers’ lives.

6. Their environmentalism is superficial. Coca-Cola is the world’s top plastic polluter according to recent audits. Yet, instead of actively reducing their plastic production, they’ve claimed that there is still a demand for plastic among customers, and have instead invested in river clean up schemes. Far from a solution.

If you suspect that a company is greenwashing, the best thing to do is to do some digging. Look at the evidence behind their promises and bold claims, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Chances are, if your gut is telling you that there’s something amiss, you’re probably right, and it’s important that we hold these companies responsible for their lies and the huge negative impact on the planet that they hide. It’s also worth remembering that industries that revolve entirely around consumerism (such as fast fashion) can never truly be sustainable – to be more eco-friendly, we need to cut our consumption to begin with, and no degree of greenwashing will ever change that.

A great blog post by Amy Meek

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