Greenwashing is when an unsustainable company markets itself or its products as sustainable. This could be through a variety of methods; direct or indirect, visual or otherwise and can come in many forms – which makes it difficult to spot. It could be anything from posting a picture for Earth Day on Instagram to choosing green leaves as a backdrop on a products packaging.
Greenwashing is anything that is done to build a sustainable reputation that mystifies the truth. The truth being that either the company doesn’t care about sustainable principles at its core and is only doing so for profit, or the company is actively hiding the unsustainable practices that are occurring in the background, like creating water and plastic pollution, using cheap and exploitative labour practices or avoiding tax.
Examples of direct greenwashing include using buzzwords like ‘eco’ ‘sustainable’, ‘compostable’ when they are not true. Sometimes companies claim products are made from recycled materials when actually the recycled element only makes up a small percentage of the product. ‘Compostable’ often necessitates the consumer themselves composting the product and ‘sustainable’ is so far reaching and vague that it provides endless loopholes for the company to not be held accountable.
Direct greenwashing could also be posting on social media claiming to care about climate change while not actively addressing sustainability issues in their own company which aren’t consumer facing like Instagram is, such as in their supply chains.
Indirect examples include using imagery, visual aids or a green aesthetic to create an implication or association of sustainability, capitalising on it as a trend. This could be as simple as the use of green leaves or pictures of a rainforest as a backdrop for a product in an advertising campaign.
In some examples of greenwashing, the branded product itself appears to be sustainable but it is actually owned by a billion dollar parent company like Unilever, Nestle, L’Oreal or Coca Cola who are huge polluters and have been guilty of labour abuses – two extremely unsustainable practices
Why do companies do it?
Easy answer – to sell their products. Companies know that the demand for sustainability is growing and it is something that more and more consumers are aware of and lean towards. It is therefore beneficial to push any sustainability credentials because it makes your product and brand look good and therefore generates profit.
Greenwashing is when any sustainability claims come from this motivation, rather than genuine concern for the planet, workers or biodiversity.
How to decode if a product is greenwashed or authentic?
Greenwashing is highly effective and really can communicate a message of sustainability, even in an indirect way. So don’t feel ashamed as a consumer if you thought a product was sustainable and later found out it wasn’t, or if you don’t have the access to genuinely sustainable alternatives.
An easy thing to decipher genuine sustainable credentials is to look for officially recognised certifications in your country, such as ‘Vegan Society Approved’ or ‘Cruelty Free’ from official bodies that award this. Try your best, seek out education and build your awareness and you will begin to know what to look for and get to know the names of real sustainable brands too.