According to the Oxford dictionary greenwashing is the ‘disinformation disseminated by an organisation so as to present an environmentally responsible public image’. This means that when a company greenwashes it gives out information claiming to be more sustainable than it really is in order to misdirect consumers and make them think they are buying green and sustainable products.
As a consumer it is difficult to figure out whether a company is genuinely carrying out its promises to be green or whether it is using the idea of being green to sell products, without making any real difference. It is also worth mentioning that not all companies realise they are greenwashing. This may be due to a lack of research and information, or that they themselves have been misled.
An example of greenwashing is bioplastics, produced with bio-based polymers, that were advertised to be easily broken down and at a quicker rate than single-use plastics, as well as being much cleaner for the environment making them the greener option. The consumer was told that to break down the material it needed to have light and oxygen, which is true, however what they didn’t tell us is that once it gets to the landfill it has limited access to both of these things and therefore it breaks down at a slower rate. This also meant that when this plastic ends up in our oceans it was not breaking down fully but breaking into smaller, harmful pieces like single-use plastic.
If you are going green or are already living sustainably, try to do as much research as you can on a company before you buy from them. Look to see whether the information they are giving is credible or whether the information they are sending out doesn’t add up. Many companies that are using greenwashing use clever marketing strategies and PR campaigns to mislead and misinform.
Be aware that it isn’t always easy to spot whether a company is greenwashing as many companies have found different ways of hiding it. In TerraChoice’s 2007 studies, they found that out of all the companies they checked to see if they were carrying out the environmental claims they were advertising, only a few of these actually were. TerraChoice came to the conclusion that there were seven ‘sins’ of greenwashing these included:
- Being vague – Giving the consumer such broad information they were being misled
- Losing sight of the whole picture and focussing on something smaller – Being truthful in their environmental claims but completely ignoring bigger issues
- Having irrelevant information – Giving out information that wasn’t necessary
- Having no proof – Giving out information but had no proof to back their claims
- Choosing the lesser of two evils – Choosing one part of an environmental section to work on but ignoring all other issues that come with this section
- Using false labels – Giving false impressions that they have third-party endorsement
- Lying – Making up information or cheating to produce the desired information
We cannot always tell when a company is greenwashing, though hopefully the above will give you some idea of what to look out for as you become a green consumer. Even though there are companies that use greenwashing to sell their products, there are also many other companies that are making positive changes to become greener and more sustainable.