Greenwash 101: What is Greenwash?
Have you heard of this term before? Probably you have heard of whitewashing, in the business world, in painting, in sports and even in the film industry. But greenwash? I don’t think so. I am certain you have encountered it more than you actually know.
The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in 1986 by Jay Westerveld, an environmental activist and researcher who wrote about examining practices in the hotel industry. Greenwashing is a compound word that is also known as ‘green sheen’.
Green Ads Only But Not Green Underneath the Ads
Greenwashing is when a company spends its marketing resources to make themselves look ‘green’ or environmentally friendly rather than minimizing its actual environmental impact. In short, it is an advertising gimmick. A face mask intended to make consumers think that purchasing from their company helps the environment.
Greenwashing often happens in marketing certain food products, alternative medicine, natural medicine, big oil companies, fashion brands, hotel industries, and a whole lot more. Believe it or not, Walmart had to pay $1 million to settle a greenwashing claim. This marketing strategy happens all over the world, not only in first world countries but anywhere in the world.
Studies and Regulations in Place
The American Marketing Association published a journal in 1991 stating that 58% of those who claim to be ‘truly’ green had at least one false claim. Fast forward 2010, a study was conducted to show how ‘truly’ green companies are. Studies conducted that only 4.5 % of those who claim to be ‘green’ is truly eco-friendly labels.
Because of the rampant campaign of greenwashing, governments all over the world took action and made regulations that included punishment for companies providing misleading environmental claims. The Australian Trade Practices Act was modified to protect consumers. In Canada (through the Competition Bureau and Canadian Standards Association), Norway and the US (Federal Trade Commission) have set guidelines for environmental marketing claims.
10 Greenwashing Signs Companies Do to Advertise Their Products According to July 2009 BSR Report
If you are to choose a brand, you have to be an informed and educated consumer. Do not just choose eco-friendly labels because they claim to be eco-friendly. Some companies can say anything to earn a quick buck.
Here are 10 greenwashing signs companies do according to a BSR Report in 2009 entitled: Understanding and Preventing Greenwash: A Business Guide. BSR is a leader in corporate strategy working in Asia, Europe, and North America developing sustainable business strategies and solutions. (source: https://www.bsr.org/reports/Understanding%20_Preventing_Greenwash.pdf)
- Fluffy Language – Words or terms with no clear meaning (e.g. “eco-friendly”).
- Green product vs. dirty company – Such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers.
- Suggestive pictures – Eco-Friendly images that indicate an unjustified green impact (e.g. flowers growing from exhaust pipes).
- Irrelevant claims – The emphasis on one small green attribute when all other attributes are not green.
- Best in class – Promoting itself as the best ‘green’ company among others. Sometimes even to the point of badnaming the rest.
- Just not credible – “Eco-friendly” cigarettes, anyone? “Greening” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
- Jargon – The use of fancy words that only scientists can understand.
- Imaginary friends – A “eco-friendly label” that is endorsed by a third party —except that it’s made up.
- No proof – eco-friendly claims but present no data or evidence.
- Out-right lying – Totally fabricated claims or data
So, if you think that at face value a product is from an eco-friendly label, think again. Read the fine print. Be on the lookout for these 10 signs.
III. Why is Greenwashing Growing?
Even though companies have paid attention to the regulations set by governments and regulating bodies, and greenwashing has diminished in the past 20 years, it still continues to grow. Why?
Because consumers nowadays are more aware of eco-friendly labels and demand environmentally friendly products. – These consumers represent 40% of buyers in the US alone. This is translated to $230 billion according to Cone’s “Green Gap Survey”. Around the world, there is also a rise in eco-friendly label purchases.
Sales for eco-friendly labels have increased in the past 13 years. – The organic industry alone has tripled in sales since 2007. Sales for natural personal care has reached $350 million in the same year. Eco-friendly business is good business.
Demand for eco-friendly labels is still on the rise even if the economy is on the downtrend. – Although the economy is struggling, the demand for eco-friendly labels is still included in the top 10 shopping checklist for the American consumer.
Regulations are still pending along with government inaction.
The regulations set are not industry-wide standards. Greenwashing in the different sectors is expected to rise in the next 10 years specifically because of these 5 factors mentioned above. Different responses from the companies are futile while government regulations and implementation of the law are pending. We all can hope that the next generation of shoppers will be able to choose eco-friendly labels amidst greenwashing.
How to Choose an Eco-Friendly Label Amidst Greenwashing
Green marketing is okay but greenwashing is not! There is a thin line between the two. You have to determine where that line is so that you can choose real eco-friendly labels amidst greenwashing.
Green marketing is advertising products based on legitimate environmentally friendly claims (as opposed to greenwashing). Green marketing is honest and straight to the point, transparent, and generally practical. No jargon or any fluffy language.
Eco-friendly labels should pass these standards:
- Sustainable Manufacturing Process
- No Toxic Ingredients Used
- Comes from Renewable Sources
- The packaging is not exaggerated
- Repairable (not Disposable)
Do not buy anything that says eco-friendly on it. Be a responsible shopper. Prioritize sustainability over style. Prioritize eco-friendliness over comfort. Read the fine print, not just the bold letters on big posters and ads. Your next purchase can be the most responsible thing that you have done in the past few days if you know how to choose eco-friendly labels wisely.
About the Author:
Vinita Turakhia is a Hong Kong-based mum and entrepreneur. She believes in reusing, recycling, and making choices that are environmentally friendly.
She runs a plant-based fashion accessories brand called ‘Genuinely not Leather’ in HK through which she manufacturers and markets cork fabric and teak leaf fabric handbags. Please visit www.gnlaccessories.com for more information.