What Is Greenwashing? As weather records shatter around the world, global temperatures rise, and storms intensify, we’re understanding perhaps better than ever before that there is no Planet B. And that’s why consumers are increasingly looking to support businesses and invest in products that help to take care of the environment that takes care of us.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that ‘sustainability’ has become quite the buzzword in the world of business. More companies are seeking to cultivate a “green” brand. Sometimes, though, that environmentally-friendly label is more fiction than fact. There’s even a name for it: “greenwashing.” Unfortunately, greenwashing is probably more common than you think, but there are ways to spot it.
What is Greenwashing?
The consumer market has changed significantly in recent decades. Where once affordability might have been top-of-mind for the average consumer, today’s shoppers need something more. Now more than ever, consumers are looking to buy from companies whose values they feel align with their own.
And one of the most important areas where such conscious consumerism prevails is in the domain of environmental sustainability. These “green” consumers, studies show, tend to be more loyal and less price-sensitive than the average buyer. If they find a green brand, they’re more willing to stick with it and to pay a bit extra in return for the assurance that the product has been sourced, manufactured, packaged, and shipped in environmentally-responsible ways.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a lot of money to be made in cultivating a “green” brand. And while the lucrative market can be a terrific incentive for companies prepared to live up to their promises, the allure of profit has led some unscrupulous businesses to capitalize on the green brand without actually embracing green practices.
“Greenwashing” refers to companies’ use of deceptive tactics to minimize or entirely cover up their environmentally harmful practices while at the same time identifying themselves as a “green” enterprise. While greenwashing can be found in any industry, the fashion, beauty, and household goods industries appear to be particularly affected.
Greenwashing can take many forms, but the most common is through the “selective disclosure” of its practices. For example, a company might identify itself as using only environmentally-friendly manufacturing and distribution practices, lauding its recycled packaging and zero-emissions factories. But what it may fail to disclose, however, is its use of external third parties to source ingredients, such as mica, in ways that are often devastating to the environment.
In other words, a company may greenwash by keeping its own hands clean, highly publicizing its own sustainable practices, while at the same time secretly partnering with entities that are not bound by such standards. And so the company profits off the green label while also getting cheap ingredients from non-green suppliers.
How to Spot Greenwashing
The signs of greenwashing aren’t always easy to spot unless you know what to look for.
One of the best ways to uncover potential greenwashing is to research the company’s history. If you find, for example, that the company has engaged in environmental remediation efforts in recent years, then that’s a significant red flag.
If a company is engaged in environmental remediation, then that means it has a history of environmentally harmful practices, and that can be an important clue as to the company’s true ethos. It is by no means a foolproof litmus test. After all, company cultures can change. Nevertheless, it’s a good sign that you should investigate the company further.
Another important strategy for spotting potential signs of greenwashing is to look at product ingredients lists. In general, the shorter and simpler an ingredients list is, the more earth-friendly it may be. This is why green cleaning products, for instance, are so much gentler not only to the environment but also to humans, causing less irritation to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tracts.
Even if the product appears to be derived from a few simple and natural ingredients, there are still some ingredients that you should be looking out for. Ingredients such as mica, palm oil, parabens, silicones, and phthalates are almost impossible to produce in environmentally friendly ways/ So if you see them in an ingredients list for a ”green” product or company, that can be a significant warning sign of greenwashing.
Greenwashing isn’t just unethical, it’s bad both for consumers and the environment. However, it’s not all that difficult to avoid it, if you know what to look for.
Photography by Yaroslava Borz