Greenwashing is a tactic used when a company portrays themselves as a more organic or environment friendly company than it really is to persuade consumers to purchase their products. Misleading claims are abundant in commercials, marketing ads and corporate social policies.
As sales for greener products increase, there are more “green”, and “eco-friendly” labels popping up out of the woodwork. There are growing expectations of both consumers and competitors to be environment friendly.
“In times of growing concerns about global warming, pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and resource depletion, it seems only natural that organizations go green.” – Jong, et al.
Naturally, consumers want to do the right thing for the environment and their families. Consumers are becoming more aware about the impacts associated with each purchase they make. The increased demand for green products creates a profitable opportunity for companies. Many corporations are learning that going “green” is beneficial for business.
Green… the Dark Side
The grim reality is that it comes down to company profit. There are many challenges associated with creating green products, including increased costs, various certifications and rigorous regulations. These can make it difficult for a company to offer environment friendly or organic products at an affordable price. With the driving force of modern consumerism, there is more pressure on companies to provide their products fast and cheap. The pressures on company managers to maximize profit can lead to unethical practices, defrauding consumers’ wallets in the process.
There are various types of greenwashing, but they all convey a false impression to the consumer. Here is a list of a few:
- Misleading packaging, marketing tricks, and images (ie. Packaging colour is green).
- Misleading or fraudulent labels/claims – “certified organic” without factual evidence of such certification or a self-declared certification
- A company narrows in or exaggerates about one aspect of its environmental efforts but overall their work practices have many harmful effects on the environment.
The Problem with Greenwashing
Frankly, consumers don’t have the time to investigate every product they purchase to confirm that it is truly “organic” or “environment friendly.” Implied trust can lead to more green consumer confusion. Greenwashing companies are encouraging unhealthy habits and their false legitimacy is encouraging consumers to do the same.
Unfortunately, when a company’s greenwashing tactics have been revealed to the public, it can tarnish the credibility of not only the specific company but other companies, eroding consumers trust and creating overall skepticism, regardless of how ethical and green other companies’ practices are.
Greenwashing is illegal, as well as unethical. Both Canada and United States have published guidelines for marketing environmental claims. (2)
How to protect ourselves
As a business owner, I understand that it is up to companies, big and small, to keep it transparent. I am not saying all companies are bad. Greenwashing has evolved over the years and more companies are looking at being greener by tweaking their business model and creating realistic environmental impact targets. But overstating or making fraudulent claims about organic authenticity and/or environmental benefits is still abundant.
Being completely green can be difficult, for both consumers and companies. Consumers have the right to make informed choices about what they are buying. Companies need to decrease consumers’ green confusion by being honest about products. Seems easy enough, right? Unfortunately, it is not an overnight fix. Consumers who want to ensure they are truly purchasing green products and eating organic will have to do a little bit of homework. Here are a few basic guidelines to follow.
The Quick & “un”Dirty
- Buy products that have minimal and recycled packaging.
- If you are interested in a product that has an organic or eco-friendly label, visit their website. If there isn’t a lot of information or an ingredient list, there might be a reason to be suspicious.
- Read ingredients. Do they meet organic claims? If you can’t pronounce most of the many ingredients on the list, it might not be meeting its claims.
- Is the certification reputable? Look for third party certification. Please refer to my blog post,"The Mystery of the Organic Label" or do some research.
- Take note! Note the colour. Just because the packaging is green does not mean the product is. Note generic words such as “green”, “eco-friendly”, “safe”, “all natural”, and other vague claims.
“Plant-based” could mean 0.01 percent of the product was made with some sort of plant fiber or plant fiber derivative – the term is vague enough for ample wiggle room. (2)
Consumers want to buy products from a company that makes claims that they trust and align with their organic beliefs. If they can’t find this in a company, consumers should walk! This will force companies to revamp their business policies and direction.
Greenwashing is a complex topic and there are various depths to be discussed. This post only skims the surface with a purpose to bring awareness and encourage consumers to ask questions about products for the long-term health of their families and the environment.
Different Shades of Greenwashing: Consumers’ Reactions to Environmental Lies, Half-Lies, and Organizations Taking Credit for Following Legal Obligations. Article: Lies, and Organizations Taking Credit for Following Legal Obligations, Menno D. T. de Jong, Gabriel Huluba, Ardion D. Beldad, Volume: 34 issue: 1, page(s): 38-76 Article first published online: September 18, 2019; Issue published: January 1, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1050651919874105
(2) Green Guides
In effort to understand the growth of greenwashing, researchers at TerraChoice, a Canadian-based environmental marketing agency, created a study that resulted in the “7 sins of greenwashing” that many large retailers were committing.
According to 2010 Greenwashing Report in Canada and USA there were 4744 products reported in the market, making green claims and delivering green speeches, with over 95% of the retailers committing at least one of the “Seven Sins of Greenwashing”.