This post and the photos within it may contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a commission at no extra charge to you.
What is greenwashing, and why it is bad?
The demand for “green,” more sustainable alternatives is increasing, and more and more people are looking for eco-friendly options. What consumers aren’t always aware of is that companies take advantage of us.
They present products that may not be as environmentally friendly as they state. But it goes deeper than that. In this article, we will go through:
- What is greenwashing & Why greenwashing is bad?
- 10 examples of greenwashing
- Common greenwashing products
– Degradable, Biodegradable, Compostable – What’s the difference?
- How to spot greenwashing?
- How to avoid greenwashing: 4 simple steps
1. What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of creating a false or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology, or company practice.
Greenwashing can make a business to appear being more environmentally friendly than it is. It can also include green marketing that promotes the perception of products, a company, or environmentally friendly intentions.
Greenwashing is also when a company enhances positive social and environmental news, either by:
- lying, manipulating, or twisting the real information
- hiding negative outcomes
- showing only selected information
- highlighting just the good side of the story
Why greenwashing is bad?
- It confuses the customers; it makes them think that they are doing something good for the environment, while in fact, they aren’t.
- Misdirection makes it easier for companies to shift the customers’ attention from their negative environmental impact.
- A company that uses greenwashing means that its goal is selling products, not protecting the environment.
It is essential to be able to differentiate:
- A brand, that it is trying to become better
- A brand that is making something only to pretend that they care for the sake of selling more
2. 10 greenwashing examples
The demand for more sustainable and eco-friendly products is increasing. That’s why a lot of companies are taking advantage of this.
I did research, plus I asked for greenwashing examples in a few of the Zero Waste groups I’m in on Facebook. I got pretty interesting responses! Let’s check them out.
(I included resources if you want to read further about each case.)
Some older and newer greenwashing examples include:
2) Royal Dutch Shell
One of the most popular oil giants repeatedly accused of its greenwashing campaigns.
Maybe you’ve heard of their ad campaign -“Don’t throw anything away – there is no away.” (2007)
It emphasizes the claim of growing flowers out of CO2 emissions, which it turned out to be false.
3) General Motors
GM is among the top 10 most polluting car manufacturers in the world.
An example of greenwashing was replacing the color of its logo from blue to green – to portray its green “gas-friendly to gas-free” image. (2009)
This was a false representation, as only one of its brands, “Chevrolet Volt” was an eco-friendly electric car, not its whole range.
The refrigerators used more energy than advertised and did not meet the efficiency standards required to earn the certification.
5) Fiji Bottled Water
(2011) Their use of the “Green Drop” logo influenced customers to think that the product is ‘environmentally superior’ to others.
It was misleading also because it looked similar to seals of approval carried by third-party organizations.
The plastic packaging itself required the consumption of 46 million gallons of fossil fuel, producing approximately 216,000,000 billion pounds of greenhouse gases per year, for its creation and distribution.
(2011) Nestle’s Eco Shape bottle for its Pure Life Natural – claiming to have used 30% less plastic without providing evidence to support ‘less than what.’ Manufacturing plastics often creates huge amounts of toxic chemical, that pollutes the environment.
So, the use of plastic water bottles regardless of the “less plastic” is a trade-off.
Nestle is one of the top 10 most polluting companies.(2019) What s more, more recent findings from Greenpeace shared that Nestlé uses 1.7 million tonnes of plastic annually.
In the past five years, the company’s use of plastic in its packaging portfolio has increased by 5%.
(2011) False, misleading claims and labels about its Kashi Organic products
(2017) Selling plastic products, misleadingly labeled as “biodegradable” and “compostable.” Walmart paid $875,000 in civil penalties and to the state recycling agency.
(2018) Ditching plastic straws with their new plastic lids “sippy cup lid.”
10) H&M’s Conscious Collection
H&M is a fast-fashion brand. With that being said, their “conscious” collection is advertised as a collection with environmental benefits. (2019)
Furthermore, they are not being transparent for their “57% recycled and sustainably sourced” materials. It’s good when companies put the effort into going greener. However, it’s hard to believe that their business model can ever be called “green”.
3. Common greenwashing products
There might be some exceptions, BUT most of the time, the following items can be considered as greenwashing products:
- Cosmetic brands that: 1) claim to be ethical and test on animals or 2) are using synthetic, ingredients 3) products containing palm oil
- Compostable single-use items: plastic bags, paper cups, utensils
- Synthetic clothing: Polyester, Bamboo rayon fabrics
- Boxed water: Advertised as “better” than a plastic bottle. In fact, boxed water still contains plastic, and it creates waste.
- Labels such as: “pure” “clear” “natural” “green” “organic”
- Biodegradable/Degradable plastic: It is still plastic & it needs special conditions to degrade (read more about it below)
Degradable, Biodegradable, Compostable – What is the difference?
Currently, biodegradable items are getting pretty popular. But the truth is that companies confuse customers by labeling products as “biodegradable” or “compostable.”
They try to portray something as “environmentally friendly” without telling the whole story.
What does it mean when something is “degradable” or “compostable”? What’s the difference between these terms?
- COMPOSTABLE – made of natural plant material, and don’t include toxic elements. Compostable bags break down under certain conditions. It can return to base organic components when processed by specific composting facilities.
- DEGRADABLE – made from plastic with other chemicals added (including heavy metals). That causes the plastic to break down into smaller pieces quicker than standard plastic when exposed to sunlight and heat.
- BIODEGRADABLE – have microorganisms added to break down the plastic. Living things, like fungi or bacteria, can break down the plastic in smaller pieces.
Most biodegradable plastic is made from the same materials as conventional petroleum-based plastics. They simply add more chemicals which are causing the plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and heat.
The title “bio” can be very misleading.
Most importantly, biodegradable products require specific conditions to break down.
Usually, these items can’t biodegrade in a landfill because they get buried under more garbage. Moreover, there are none of the factors needed to biodegrade.
Related post: What Is Biodegradable Plastic Made Of?
4. How to spot greenwashing?
Terrachoice, a North American environmental marketing consultancy, classified “seven sins” of greenwashing in their report of 2010. They can help you to recognize and avoid greenwashing:
- when representing only a limited range of qualities to redirect the attention of customers from other significantly negative environmental impacts.
- when the marketer makes claims which cannot be verified through conveniently available information.
- when you see the use of a large variety of misleading words such as “pure,” “natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly.”
- when there is a green claim which is either insignificant or made under regulatory pressure.
Lesser of Two Evils
- if the marketer makes a valid claim in a particular aspect, but there is an overall hazardous impact on the environment.
- committed by the marketer to make an untrue green claim.
Worshiping False Labels
- if there is a demonstration of the environment-friendliness of a product through fake labels and certificates
How to avoid greenwashing: 4 simple steps
Step 1: Observation
Greenwashing often includes words and misleading labels, such as:
- certified, pure, natural, earth-friendly, eco-friendly, organic, green, reduced emissions, sustainable development, carbon-neutral, biodegradable, etc.
Also, look at the packaging – Are there environmental imageries? Green colors/packaging? Leaves and animals?
Step 2: Look for evidence
Take a look at the corporate websites. Try to find sustainability reports to verify the green claims. Look for statistics or any relevant information that can support and prove the statements.
Step 3: Check reliability
Are there eco-labels or third-party certifications? Check their trustworthiness.
Step 4: Do a quick internet browse
The amazing advantage we have is one browse away. Get a second opinion from others, by reading blogs or watching youtube videos.
Essential things to remember:
- Any product that is labeled “natural,” without proof or certification, is probably greenwashing.
- There are no regulations for “natural” labeling. “Natural” means nothing!
- Natural doesn’t equal organic, and organic does not necessarily mean ethical.
- Not all synthetic chemicals are harmful; not all-natural materials are good.
- Companies can still hide things under the term “fragrance.”
- The fewer ingredients – the better.
It might seem overwhelming.
But trust me, once you start paying more attention, it will be super easy to spot greenwashing.
You can find out by simply looking at some products, while others may need a bit of digging.
The truth is that our planet and climate are changing, our current consumption rates are unsustainable, and a lot of the products on the market are hurting the earth.
The best thing we can do is to be skeptical and do further research, of companies/products when they seem shady.
Did I miss a greenwashing product, or is there something else you want to add?
Share in the comments below. I’m super curious to hear about your experience with greenwashing!