How to Counteract Greenwashing

By Shannon Mora

Greenwashing is a term that refers to a company’s attempt to market a false impression that they or their products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are. This is a ploy to capture conscious consumers within the growing sustainability market. As eco-friendly products gain more popularity, companies are seeking a means to get ahead of the competition. Greenwashers will portray the perception that their products are either more natural, organic, recyclable, or less water-intensive than alternatives. Tactics include posting advertisements that only tell a partial truth, leaving open-ended assumptions for consumers to make. Purposefully keeping descriptions vague allows companies to make any number of claims, so long as there is some truth to them.

Examples of Greenwashing

The best strategy for Greenwashers is to provide limited information and allow consumers to draw their own conclusions. For example, if a supplier launches a campaign with the word “recyclable” on their product, a consumer’s eco-friendly senses may start to tingle and pique their interest in purchasing this product over alternatives. However, the suppliers did not specify which portion of the production is being referred to as recyclable. It may be the case that only a small portion of materials are recyclable or perhaps only the packaging, yet the consumer walks away with a warm glow feeling of making a sustainable purchase and will likely return to this brand for future purchases. This is greenwashing.

Another common example is making the claim that significant improvements have been made, when in reality the success is being embellished or overstated. A company can claim that they have improved production processes by including 50% more recycled material than their previous year. When you take a deeper look you may find that their recycled materials only jumped from 2% to 3%. Their claim is partially true, yet there is an intention to grossly exaggerate the true outcomes of their reduction efforts.

Effects on the Market

As the market is what places a tangible value on environmental benefits, the impact of greenwashing is quite severe for both buyers and sellers.

As a consumer, you may have seen similar claims on your favorite products and are now beginning to question their ethics. You are not alone. Many consumers become discouraged when attempting to make conscious decisions once they discover the realities of greenwashing. This tends to breed skeptics who believe all sustainability initiatives are greenwashing tactics and either no longer trust brand claims at all or simply lose the drive to seek the best alternatives. We see the market suffer an “it’s all the same” mentality from buyers, thus, diminishing the consumer’s purchasing power.

When consumers feel pessimistic about supporting green initiatives, the companies dedicated to truly making a change in the industry also suffer. Their efforts are judged prematurely without further investigation and consumers move on to the cheapest option rather than the most impactful one. It becomes disheartening to put forth additionally funding towards best practices, time to seek out like-minded partners and manufacturers, and to ultimately go against the grain when some businesses are met with skepticism.

However, the consumer’s purchasing power can be reclaimed and the influence of eco-consciousness restored! We simply need to identify the real change-makers and place our dollars towards the products that are truly making a difference in their respective industry, towards the companies that set ambitious goals and actively seek innovative methods to reach them.

How To Tell The Difference

The best way to tell the difference between genuine changemakers and the bare minimum doers, is through doing research. This can be as simple as identifying a certification label on the product. Certified labels are distributed from vetted organizations such as USDA Organic, FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council), or Green America amongst many others, which require that their partners undergo a rigorous certification process to verify the claims they are making so that consumers can be certain about their purchase and what they are supporting.

Another good sign that a company is legitimate in its claims is the quality of their explanation. Truly green companies are very proud of their success stories and share them in detail. Check for a brand’s “Impact Assessment Report” on their website. These reports are typically conducted on an annual basis and will compare last years challenges to this year’s successes. The contents of the report will depend on the company’s goals and strategies, however, each should contain clear metrics and calculations for their results.

One last key hint is that legitimate companies will also typically admit that there are still improvements to be made and will pledge to seek out effective and creative methods.

Conclusion

When information is lacking it leads to skewed assumptions and conclusions. Consumers must counter this by seeking out more information and drawing informed conclusions. Likewise, companies with good intentions towards sustainability must put forth complete materials for customer review. Ultimately, transparency is the key to overcoming greenwashing.