Luckily more and more customers nowadays are increasingly more interested in buying eco-friendly and greener products and several surveys demonstrate how, if a product is labelled as green, we are also ready to pay more for it.
A Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products and among millennials, the percentage jumps to 72%.
Unfortunately, companies have understood how to spin this for their own benefit and to increase sales by applying what has been defined as Greenwashing.
Greenwashing is a term coined in 1986 by Jay Westervelt, who noticed how hotel’s practice of placing a cad in each room to promote the reuse of bathroom towels was designed to portrait them as more environmentally friendly than what their daily practices were actually suggesting.
Since then, Greenwashing has been defined as a form of marketing practice in which green values are deceptively used to mislead consumers into thinking of a company as environmentally friendly and therefore, better of its competitors in his consumer’s eyes.
Greenwashing is not a new practice: it has been used already by the American Chevron in its 1985 “The People Do” campaign, featuring idyllic forests and natural habitats to look “greener” while violating at the same time the Clean Air act, Clean Water Act and spilling oil in the Ocean.
Chevron was followed by giants of the calibre of DuPont, advertising their new oil tanks featuring cheerful marine animals while also being the single largest corporate polluter in the US.
So, even if greenwashing is not a new concept, its use has unfortunately increased over recent years to meet the increasing consumers’ demand for environmentally friendly goods and services. And whilst some greenwashing is not intentional and is actually a result of lack of knowledge from these companies, this practice is nonetheless hurting the environment by misleading consumers into buying products that do have a greater environmental impact than expected.
An industry making a heavy use of greenwashing is the bottled water industry: often pictured coming from rugged mountains and pristine lakes or springs, plastic water bottles are presented as safe to drink and good for the environment. The claim is to support that the increasing use of recycled plastic or bioplastics in the making of water bottles is a perfectly eco-friendly practice, good enough to prevent consumers to switch to re-usable water bottles.
In 2008, Nestle Canada went to the extent to run an ad claiming: “Bottled water is the most environmentally responsible consumer product in the world.”
But what Nestle forgot to consider is that only about 31% of plastic bottles are actually recycled, which means that “the most environmentally product in the world” creates millions of tons of garbage every year that ends up in our landfills or oceans.
Here there’s a cool video about another plastic water giant, Fiji water, owned by The Wonderful Company.
Recycling might be however the biggest example of global greenwashing in history.
For years, we have been told that recycling was the solution, that it was good and enough to do “the right thing”, while actually enabling us to keep consuming products at the same rate and not changing our buying practices much. Seeing the labels “recyclable” or “coming from recycled materials” has entitled us to keep buying single use products. Little information was available on how much of our waste was actually being recycled and how much was simply ending up in landfills or shipped back to other Countries to deal with, creating in fact even more pollution to move our garbage around the world.
The perfect sustainability paradox.
The difference between Greenwashing and Green Marketing
Luckily not all these eco-friendly claims are false, and many companies advertise their products or services based on legitimate environmental claims. This is what is called Green Marketing, an honest and transparent version of Greenwashing,
There is a fine line between greenwashing and green marketing but generally the difference can be found in:
- Manufacturing practices, including fair work and ethical labour practices.
Example: A company that does not exploit any of its labour force, produce locally as much as possible and does not pollute the environment in the process.
- Sustainability and traceability of the entire supply chain, from ingredients sourcing to delivery of the final product.
A company that source organic ingredients (when possible) that are produced in a way that is sustainable and does not damage the eco-system, such as Moso bamboo (not part of Pandas’ diet) that is responsibly harvested.
- Absence of toxic substances, from the manufacturing process to the final product.
A company that does not use chemical materials that would harm the environment when disposed of (most commonly in streams).
Did you know that many “sustainable” bamboo clothes involve a lot of chemicals to be produced in order to turn a sturdy bamboo fibre into a soft T shirt?
- Ability to really be recycled or, even better, to really degrade or decompose.
This is for example common to many bioplastic single use containers that claim to be environmentally friendly but will actually only decompose under very specific circumstances, not achievable in nature.
What is actually needed is a compostable alternative (if single use is necessary) rather than an emphasis on recycling per se.
- Absence of excessive packaging.
We all like pretty wrappings but keeping packaging to its minimum will avoid both unnecessary waste and use of natural resources to produce such packaging.
- Design to be reused and eventually repaired rather than be disposable.
These would be for example all those personal care products such as safety razors, menstrual cups etcetera.
How to recognise Greenwashing
The design agency Futerra has developed a list of seven most common practices of greenwashing, to which Ed Gillespie added in 2008 three additional indicators.
They are as follow:
- Hidden Trade-off
Suggesting a product is "green" based on a narrow set of criteria but without actually considering the overall negative impact of the company of product itself. This is the most common sin and sum up around 57% of all greenwashing false claims.
An example is the H&M “Conscious” collection, considered to be better because partly coming from recycled materials, which diverts the attention from the impact the fast fashion industry in itself has.
- No Proof
Advertising a product as sustainable but with no substantial and accessible fact to back the claim, such as a reliable third-party certification. This is the second most common practice, counting for 26% of greenwashing claims.
When a term so poorly defined or broad is used that it’s likely to be misunderstood and overestimated by the consumer, terms such as “natural” (even a poisonous plant is natural!), “green”, “eco-friendly”, “non-toxic” (everything in large proportion is potentially dangerous!). The vagueness sin counts for 11% of greenwashing claims.
- Worshiping False Friends
Is committed when words, labels or images are used to give the impression of a third-party endorsement where no such endorsement actually exists.
Is highlighting, for example, a lack of harmful ingredients that have actually been banned for years, therefore not making a Brand any better than its competitors. These claims are truthful but irrelevant for consumers seeking more environmentally friendly products.
- Lesser of Two Evils
Is committed when a Brand claims to be better and “greener” than its competitors, distracting the consumers from the environmental impact of the product’s category as a whole. An example can be Huggies Pure and Natural nappies, that claim to be better but that, after all, are still disposable nappies.
- Outright lies
Is making environmental claims that are simply not true with the purpose to deceive consumers. Luckily this is not a very common practice.
An example is Walmart which has been fined in 2017 for selling plastic bags as biodegradable. While all plastics will eventually degrade if left in the landfill for around 1,000 years, Walmart bags were not any better than any other kind of plastic bags as consumers were led to believe.
- Suggestive pictures
Using images that give an unjustified green impression, such as flowers or the use of colour green (think of the healthier Coca Cola can, supported by Greenpeace and WWF: in a green can and advertised with 35% less sugar, it is still a highly sugared beverage in an aluminium can…)
- Just not credible
Is advertising environmentally friendly attributes of a dangerous product which are quite hard to believe, such as vapes advertised to be good for you.
The use of jargon or type of information that seem to make a product more environmentally friendly but that the average consumer is not able to easily understand or verify.
Greenwashing practices have been recognised also by regulators worldwide and the Australian Trade Practices Act now includes up $6 million in fines for companies that provide misleading environmental claims.
Greenwashing and Consumer Perception
If a Brand or company is perceived as reputable, it is less likely consumers will actually notice greenwashing practices. If a green advertising is considered credible, the attitude towards the Brand will be more positive, regardless if the advertising has been greenwashed.
However, consumers with higher green concerns and deeply focused on finding real sustainable solutions seem to be more able to tell the difference between honest green marketing and greenwashed alternatives and less likely to change their perception of greenwashed Brands.
This is why it’s important to keep constantly informed, to not be scared to do some extra research and contact these Brands to ask questions and make sure that none of the greenwashing sins above is committed.
Sustainability must become a frame of mind that creates a better world to live in, a world we are excited to be part of and where we feel we can make a difference.