Sustainability & greenwashing

Sustainability is trending all across the globe these days – which is great! There is a rise in conscious consumerism and more demand for eco-friendly products and companies with environmentally ethical business practices … BUT … how do you distinguish real sustainability from greenwashing?

Greenwashing – don’t fall for it!

Let’s start by explaining what greenwashing is –

Greenwashing involves making unsubstantiated or misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice

In a nutshell, greenwashing is dishonest marketing about a company or its products that makes companies appear a lot more environmentally conscious than they really are! More effort and energy are spent in promoting themselves as ‘green’ instead of spending that time and money reducing their actual unsustainable practices! This misleads the genuine environmental concerns and creates problems that limit our ability to make environmentally friendly decisions!

Greenwashing can be as simple as a ‘green’ name, slogan or visual packaging that create a green perception, without any green credentials or evidence offered. By superficially appealing to green demands, businesses retain most environmentally conscious consumers without changing their unsustainable businesses.

We have all been affected by greenwashing and while there is no guaranteed way to avoid it – ask yourself the following questions.

Is the company transparent?

Very few companies are 100% perfect when it comes to the planet – it’s about being honest!

Most companies these days have a great looking corporate social responsibility (CSR) program in place where they set eco-goals to show they plan on making a difference.  But, it is not very often that these corporations live up to them, and when they do, it’s a surface-level effort to make themselves look good. Just putting something on paper for the sake of mere lip service.

Are they being explicit?

Surely if a company is making positive sustainable changes, they would definitely want to showcase these changes and indeed they should! For example, if you were reducing water in your product production you would be proud to publish ⁠the supporting information and make it easily accessible to your consumers! Alternatively, you could be part of a reliable third-party certification!

Is their real purpose to save the environment or save themselves more money?

What percentage of their products are ethical and sustainable?

With some brands, clothing brands in particular, their sustainable products make up a ridiculously small amount of their total product collection. However, they heavily promote this collection to show how environmentally conscious they are, when the majority of their products are fast fashion (aka ‘trashion’).

Is this “millennial branding”?

Words can be tricky and marketing companies are so creative – sometimes it can be hard to recognise a genuine advert from a greenwashing campaign. For example, if you are looking for a soap to wash your dishes and you browse the cleaning aisles you will come across many products that can do the job, but these days more and more products are in green or cardboard packaging or the actual soap is colored green.  The label usually has leaves or cute animals or a picture of the earth and saving the planet!

All too often, this includes slapping on a long line of words to brand a product ‘millennial friendly’ which includes words like:

– natural,

– pure,

– eco-friendly,

– responsible,

– sustainable,

– ethical,

– conscious,

– biodegradable,

– vegan, etc

Keep in mind that none of these words mean anything as nobody is regulating them at the moment! So while they make you feel like you are making a better decision for yourself and your family – there is probably very little difference between this ‘green’ dish soap and any other soap.

And what does ‘natural’ mean? It really can mean anything – crude oil can be considered natural as it occurs naturally! But that doesn’t mean that its extraction and refinement is sustainable! Or labeling a shampoo as ‘vegan’ seems quite irrelevant as pretty much all shampoos are vegan unless they are made with goats milk or honey – which is not that common and as a vegan, you would know the ingredient immediately. However, a lot of pressure has been put on people to eat more plant-based diets so if you can’t eat like a vegan, then buying vegan products will fill the gap … not really! Another example is a certain water company’s eco-bottle made with 15% less plastic … Firstly, there is no such thing as an eco-shaped bottle – it is just a plastic bottle that uses 15% less plastic than its previous bottles, but it is still a plastic bottle, there is nothing sustainable about it!

Don’t fall for these nice words, and always ask yourself- is this really better for the environment?

How can we avoid greenwashing?

Buy less stuff

We can’t just consume our way to a more sustainable world.

Jennifer Nini

The easiest way is to apply the 5 R’s of zero waste which I have spoken about many times and you can see an intro to this on my video here!

These are to refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you do need, reuse what you can, recycle what you can’t and rot (compost the rest)!

We don’t mean to never buy anything. We all need to buy things! And some companies are honest – it is not all doom and gloom! But before buying ask yourself if you are being greenwashed, ask yourself if you really need this? Because even if your potential new purchase is sustainably sourced, fair trade and organically grown, and which may also have a lower carbon footprint than its non-sustainable alternative – do you really need another pair of jeans or another sweater?

Always go with your gut

If your gut tells you otherwise – then take some time and think about it. You don’t have to buy right away! If you think something doesn’t sound right then you are probably right!  Just because the packaging has a picture of nature or a few eco-friendly words on it doesn’t mean we have to believe them!

Do your research! Ask questions!

Unfortunately, our lives have become so busy these days that we don’t have the time to start reading ingredient lists and researching company websites to learn more about their products! Make yourself aware and check if the information provided is really specific or really vague – if it is too vague it is probably greenwashing! Email the company and ask questions.

At the end of the day there is no product that is perfectly green as everything has a carbon footprint, but we can avoid the greenwashing.

Being sustainable means nothing without proof!

We would love to hear from you! Do you struggle to tell the difference between a good product and good marketing? Do you read the ingredients list before you buy? What frustrates you the most about greenwashing? Do you buy only certified products, like fair trade or organic or B Corp? Please share with us in the comments below!

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