Loads of brands are doing it. There’s a lot of money in it! But what is greenwashing, exactly?

BThanks to Arwa Lodhi

Good news! The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice reports that products labeled “green” increased by 73% from 2009 to 2010, and that big box/mega stores offered a higher percentage (22.8%) of products with “green” labels than specialty retailers (11.5%) and green boutique stores (12.8%).

Clearly, people are demanding that what they buy is kinder to the planet.

Sadly, there is bad news to match this. Namely, the fact that most ‘green’ products on the market are not actually eco-friendly at all. As a result of high consumer demand for earth-friendly products, many manufacturers have simply used marketing and packaging to mislead customers into thinking their goods are ecological.

So common is this deceptive practice, a term has been coined for it: greenwashing.

But what is greenwashing, exactly?

Misleading Marketing: What Is Greenwashing?


what is greenwashing

Greenwashing can be hard to spot, but it’s all around us.

For example, several hotel chains claim to be environmentally friendly because they allow guests to choose whether to sleep on the same sheets and use the same towels for continuous days. Not a bad idea, of course. But when it comes to behavioural adaptations that can really make a difference, these hotels fail. For example? How many have eliminated plastic? How many use more efficient insulation and heating, or purchase non-toxic carpeting and bedding?

McDonald’s tried to paint itself as ‘green’ lately, just because it has begun to use biofuel made from leftover grease in its fleet of trucks, and is using recycled paper in its takeaway bags. Great steps forward, of course. Yet the company still buys their chicken from Cargill, which feeds its poultry with imported soy, much of it apparently coming from the Bolivian Amazon and Brazilian Cerrado. Of course, these areas are rapidly being deforested for new soy plantations. And let’s not forget that McDonald’s bases its entire concept around disposable packaging.

Just as bad are some beauty companies. They claim to be ‘inspired by nature’ or even use the words ‘pure’, ‘herbal’, ‘bio’, ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ in their packaging, yet sell products that contain dozens of harmful synthetic chemicals, such as sodium laureth sulfate, diazolidinyl urea, fragrance and many others.

No regulations on greenwashing

In their efforts to give greenwashing the boot, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics  highlights several companies as being guilty of greenwashing. However, they note that regulation on the use of words such as ‘natural’, ‘herbal’ ‘green,’ Earth’ and ‘organic’ are very loose and not stringently regulated, making greenwashing even harder to spot.

No wonder Dr Bronner’s – a soap company with strict organic guidelines for their ingredients – sued a few competing brands for falsely claiming they, too, were organic. Dr Bronner’s won, and those beauty brands that used words like ‘organic’ in their descriptions (or even in their names) had to change their packaging, marketing and how they presented their products.

Indeed, knowing what is greenwashing and which brands are authentically eco-friendly can be tough. But never fear! Eluxe is here to help.

Not only have we created a list of brands you think are green, but really aren’t (find them here), but we’ve also come up with some tips to ensure you don’t get caught up in the greenwash!

Watch out for these five key greenwashing tricks

1. The use of unsubstantiated claims

Who says a company is ‘natural’, ‘green’ or ‘organic’?  Make sure that if a product makes these claims, there are no harmful chemicals hiding behind the ‘green’ ones. Vegan leather is a perfect example. Although it is often promoted as being eco friendly, ‘vegan leather’ is often merely plastic by another name, and is just as harmful for the environment, if not worse, than leather production.

2. The lesser of two evils’ trick

This is a fairly common one, whereby a company fools consumers into thinking it’s gone green, when it’s just slightly less harmful than it was before. Take organic cigarettes, for example. They may be made of pesticide free plants, but in this context, ‘organic’ means just slightly less deadly than regular cigarettes.

Or what about Ziploc’s ‘evolve’ line? They use ‘less plastic’ and create it with wind energy. But honestly, why even use plastic wrap at all when there are so many alternatives?

what is greenwashing

3. Unseen trade-offs

These are particularly hard to spot. This is when companies tout the eco-friendliness of certain aspects of their products while ignoring the larger environmental cost. For example, paper that advertises itself as chlorine-free might come from virgin forests. Or ‘organic cotton‘ may be shipped from tens of thousands of miles away.

Just look at these nappies, below. The good news! Organic Cotton. The Bad News? These are disposable, contain plastics, and still create huge amounts of landfill! If you really want to be eco-friendly, only washable cloth diapers will do.

huggies organic cotton

4. Irrelevant claims

These are commonly made by companies to fool us into believing they’ve made an effort to be green, but they have done nothing relevant towards this. One of the worst offenders is probably beauty products that proudly declare themselves to be ‘paraben and cruelty free’.

Um…the EU has banned parabens and animal testing anyway!

Nice try.

what is greenwashing

5. The use of misleading green images or names

Beware: this is probably THE most common trick! Keep an eye out for pictures of trees, leaves and other such nature scenes on labels that make no other claims to eco-friendliness. Just because there’s an animal and a bit of greenery on the label doesn’t mean the company is making the environment a priority, nor do names or labels like ‘Organix’ ‘Green’, ‘Bio’, ‘Enviro’ or ‘Eco’ before a name or brand.

I mean, just look at these Body Shop products, below. Would you guess these were loaded with chemicals? Check the label!

body shop products

What Makes A Product Truly Green?

The best way to know what to buy is to look for Third Party Certification.

What that means is, check that the label has been certified by a recognised body that ensures a product is eco-friendly, such as:

  • The Soil Association
  • EcoCert
  • The Green Seal
  • FSC (for paper and wood)
  • LEEDS (for homes)
  • The Leaping Bunny (for cosmetics)

Unfortunately, the answer to ‘what is greenwashing’ isn’t straightforward. And even less so since there is currently very little governmental control of misleading environmental advertising claims. But there are a number of non-profit organisations that monitor greenwashing. The key to avoiding any sort of greenwashing is to do your own research and stay informed.

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