Greenwashing 101: Definition, Examples & How To Call It Out
When I started writing for mbg in 2015, sustainability was still a niche term in the wellness space—one that took a back seat to a product's efficacy and price point.
It's hard to overstate just how much public interest in sustainability has picked up in the years since. This increasing environmental consciousness is amazing, and it's something that will serve us well in the climate decade. However, it does come with one unfortunate side effect, and that's an uptick in greenwashing.
How do you define greenwashing?
Put simply, greenwashing is when a company fibs or downright lies about the environmental impact of its products or services. As more consumers prioritize sustainable goods, greenwashing is a way to stay relevant without doing the real work.
"It's basically when organizations succumb to the temptation to present a different image from what's really there," Renee Lertzman, Ph.D., Project Inside Out founder and a psychologist who specializes in the mental toll of climate change, tells mbg. "It's a particular image or facade that purports to be in alignment with sustainability and climate issues—but it's not the real deal."
What makes it so problematic?
If a company is greenwashing, it means that at least part of their business is not "sustainable" in the most basic sense: It can't be sustained into the future without causing damage to our environment or its inhabitants (people, animals, etc.). And instead of doing something about this flaw, that company is trying to sweep it under the rug. In an age of climbing temperatures, violent extreme storms, and egregious attacks on human rights, this environmentally damaging tactic only adds fuel to the (sometimes literal) fire.
Greenwashing also violates trust, which can have a negative psychological impact on consumers. "The influence of greenwashing is so profoundly detrimental because it just adds to the undermining of trust," Lertzman adds. "[It] exploits our natural and understandable concern and anxiety about what's going on with the environment."
Unfortunately, greenwashing is hard to spot and even harder to stop. That's because there's no universal standard for what constitutes greenwashing, no governing body verifying a product's sustainability claims before it hits shelves. A lot of the words you see on packaging (natural, green, eco-friendly) have been overused and diluted to the point of losing all meaning. So in some instances, companies may not even realize they're greenwashing when they put them on a label or webpage. When a term doesn't have a good definition, it becomes really easy to co-opt and abuse.
Is greenwashing a new thing?
While it feels more prominent today, greenwashing as a nebulous concept has been around for decades. Lertzman remembers first tracking examples of corporate greenwashing in the 1980s, and she saw them really pick up when sustainable business became a buzzword in the early '90s.
The specific term greenwashing was coined in a 1986 essay by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. He pegged it to hotels that asked guests to reuse towels as part of a larger environmental strategy that didn't actually exist.
"These hotels appeared to be only engaging in environmental responsibility to save money," Tiffany Gallicano, Ph.D., an associate professor of public relations at UNC–Charlotte and author of A Critical Analysis of Greenwashing Claims, explains to mbg. "It seemed disingenuous to encourage guests to be environmentally responsible when these hotels were being environmentally reckless."
How to spot it.
As mentioned earlier, without more oversight on packaging claims and promotional language, greenwashing will remain common and difficult to spot. To navigate the murky waters, here are some general strategies I use when reading about new companies. Keeping them in mind as you're shopping can help you suss out who is actually furthering the environmental cause, and who's just trying to make a buck:
1. Read the fine print.
When looking at a company's website, don't stop at the homepage. Check out their mission statement or sustainability page (these days, most companies will have one), and see what sort of information they're sharing there. If they claim to have an "ethical supply chain," do they also list the countries they supply from and how much they pay workers? If they claim to be a "zero-waste" company, do they share more information on where they send production waste, if it's not a landfill? Companies don't need to have every detail of their operations on their website, but they should at least provide some context as to what their major claims actually mean.
Typically, I'll also look to make sure these sustainability pages are up to date. If all the reports or data on there are from 10 years ago, it's a sign the company might not be revisiting their environmental strategy as often as they should be.
Greenwashing example: A company claims to be "entirely zero-waste" but does not provide more details. It turns out, only its product's packaging is zero-waste; its production process is not.
2. Beware of buzzwords.
This is related to the first tip, but buzzy terms like green, eco-friendly, and natural should be investigated extra carefully, as they're undefined but get tossed around a lot. Case in point: A recent report by WWD found that since 2017, there's been a 49% rise in products described as eco and a 25% bump in the word conscious. That's not to say that any company using these words is trying to be deceitful. They just need to make it clear how they define them and put them into practice.
Greenwashing example: A clothing company that claims to use "natural" materials but sprays pesticides on all of its cotton.
3. Consider the whole picture, cradle to grave.
Products can be sustainable in one sense (maybe it can be recycled) but harmful in another (the people who made it might not be paid fairly, for example). So when sussing out a product, see if you can take a cradle-to-grave perspective and consider its entire life span. I find that asking the question, "Where did this product come from, and where will it go after I'm done with it?" can be helpful for this one.
Greenwashing example: A fruit that's organic, but was grown on deforested land in the Amazon.
4. Look for the "human factor."
This is a tip from Lertzman that I'm going to start adopting, too. When researching a company, do a little digging on the people behind it to get a sense of their values. "I believe we have a radar for authenticity more than we think we do," says Lertzman, so reading an interview with the founder or watching a video they've made about the product can be telling.
Greenwashing example: A CEO who claims to be an environmentalist but will happily cut corners if it means making more money.
5. Don't fall for a given.
Sometimes you'll see companies make a point to advertise that their products are free of pollutants that they can't legally contain anyways. This isn't necessarily a minus for the company, but it certainly shouldn't be counted as a plus.
Greenwashing example: A baby formula that's labeled BPA-free. By FDA law, infant formula packaging can't contain BPA in the U.S.
6. Be wary of overly rosy language.
Running a business that prioritizes sustainability is hard—especially if you're a larger, established corporation that has had to backtrack on old ways of doing things. Any company that says it isn't is probably kidding themselves. I consider it a sign of sincerity—not weakness—when a company discloses what challenges they face in the journey to meet their sustainability goals. After all, if a company only sets goals it knows it can meet, chances are the goals aren't ambitious enough. "Nobody is going to do it perfectly, and we need leaders who actually speak to that," agrees Lertzman. "When they do, we all have permission to join with them in a very imperfect way."
Greenwashing example: A company that prides itself on being "100% sustainable" but takes a very narrow view of what that means and uses it as an excuse to stop trying to improve.
7. Ask who was harmed in the process of making this product.
This one will only become more important as we continue to dismantle systems that have contributed to environmental racism and climate injustice. Historically, the environmental movement has largely neglected poor people and people of color. As sustainable fashion expert Dominique Drakeford told mbg last year in an interview, "the original folks who spearheaded the movement and controlled the narrative weren't inclusive of black and brown Indigenous peoples' voices and the work they were doing for centuries before there was even the need for sustainability." To be truly sustainable, a company must consider the needs of all the world's citizens—not just its customers.
Greenwashing example: An energy company that invests in climate initiatives around the world but pollutes poor communities in its own backyard.
What to do when you see it.
Though we now live in a call-out culture, you might not want to take to social media to shame any company you catch greenwashing—at least not right away. "Calling out tends to make corporations and businesses incredibly defensive and retractive," says Lertzman. "They don't want to engage at all and become phobic about the whole thing."
Instead, she recommends first reaching out to the company with your accusations privately and giving them a chance to respond, framing the issue as a potential area of improvement. If you're ignored or given an unsatisfactory response, Gallicano says then it's time to consider sharing your experience online, adding that "pressure from consumers on social media can motivate changes by companies."
Hopefully, policy changes and advancements in technology (blockchain-verified supply chains could be coming in the not so distant future) will eventually make it so that the burden of policing the environmental industry doesn't fall on consumers in the first place.
Greenwashing is the act of exaggerating the sustainability of a product or service. It's a harmful tactic that some companies use to appeal to increasingly environmentally minded consumers. When you spot greenwashing, reaching out to the company can help keep them accountable.
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