How to tell that a brand is “Greenwashing”

So what is greenwashing?

The term was originally coined over 40 years ago in the 1980s by Environmentalist Jay Westerveld to describe companies that were making false claims and overstating the environmental or ethical benefits of their services or products. Greenwashing is the practice of marketing products in a way that convinces consumers that a product is more ethical or environmentally friendly than it is. 

There are three types of businesses/brands in the world of greenwashing. The first type is genuinely trying to implement sustainable and ethical practices and does so successfully. The second type is genuinely trying to implement sustainable and ethical practices but might be misinformed or isn’t doing enough and therefore lands up greenwashing. The third type is pretending to try to implement sustainable and ethical practices to trick customers into thinking they are trustworthy and ethical.  As awareness around social responsibility increase, so the presence of the third type of business/brand increases – with businesses trying to cash in on peoples good intentions. 

Many consumers want to believe that they are voting with their money. This means supporting brands and businesses that are operating ethically. We aim to help you to make these choices easily.

  1. Look at the language: Is the brand using language that is difficult to understand? Is the brand using broad terms? Is the brand using very complex terms that most consumers are unlikely to understand?
    • Look out for: brands that usethe following terms; “environmentally friendly”, “eco-friendly”, “green”, “good to nature”, “earth-loving”, “all-natural”  or “earth-friendly” and do on. Another thing to look out for is when a brand has one “sustainable line” as a small part of a larger product offering, this happens frequently in the fashion industry. 
  2. Look for proof behind claims: Is the brand missing statistics, evidence and detailed information to back up the claims that they make? – this should be in their sustainability report or on their website.
  3. Look out for: brand claims with no evidence e.g. brands claim that they source products from “sustainable sources” like using “free-range chicken” or “organic cotton” but have no certifications or detailed information on the product packaging itself or their website. 
  4. Look further than the product: Is the brand transparent about its supply chain? What is their stance on diversity, gender equality, sustainability? Have they made one swap to one product and are making broad claims about their whole brand?
  5. Look out for: brands focussing on one element of the supply chain e.g. “recyclable packaging” or swapping out plastic straws for paper straw – but what about fair (living) vs. minimum wages, safety standards, ethical working conditions, carbon emissions, water usage, dye effluent, reduction and reuse before recycling? 
  6. Look at the visuals: Is the brand using beautiful packaging and elaborate advertising campaigns and strategies to position itself in an ethical and sustainable way?
  7. Look out for: the use of natural/“earthy” tones on product/packaging or corporate identity, stock/generic images of nature instead of real images of their factories, workers or fields. 
  8. Look for resources: Are there any negative articles about this brand or their parent company?
  • See the following useful resources or do a simple Google search: 
    • Google: “Greenwashing examples in [country]” – to find examples of brands in a certain country or area;
    • Search for “[brand] greenwashing” – to find out if a certain brand has been accused of greenwashing; 
    • Greenpeace (for all brands)
    • Ecolabel Index (for the largest global directory of ecolabels)
    • Good on You directory (for ethical fashion brands)
    • Ethical brand directory (for ethical and sustainable fashion, lifestyle and beauty brands)

Greenwashing is a tricky subject as some brands are just starting out on their journey and it is unfair to berate them for this, however, there are transparent ways for brands to communicate about this. This is the key to discerning whether a brand falls into category one, two or three as mentioned before.

The best way for consumers to protect themselves from greenwashing is to do research. Keep your eyes open – read the label, read the list of ingredients, look for the certifications, research the certifications, go through the website with a fine-tooth comb. Ask the difficult questions, to the brands or the managers in store, although it might be difficult, it will be worthwhile to support companies who are walking the walk and not just talking the talk. 

Another great way to assess whether a brand is greenwashing is by using Ethically. We take over 700 data sources and compile them into one easy to use score. We update the scores automatically so you can shop how you normally do and trust that we have your back. Download Ethically for free here.

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