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How to Spot Greenwashing

11/15/2021 by qrelihan

   You may have heard the phrase greenwashing before but never knew what it meant or how it affected you.  In simple terms greenwashing is when a company talks the talk about being environmentally sustainable, but they do not walk the walk.  In fact, it is a marketing strategy used to make it appear as though a company is taking action when in reality, they have no work to support their commitment.  This is because more companies are recognizing that current and potential employees are holding companies to a higher standard when it comes to their commitment to the environment.   

   However, spotting and stopping greenwashing ultimately comes down to customers, because they can either make or lose the company money.  If environmental sustainability is important to you as a consumer than, holding companies accountable for their claims and commitments is critical to ending greenwashing.  I know I am guilty as a consumer and customer of not being aware of a company’s false claims until after purchasing their product.  However, I am trying to educate myself so that I can do better in the future, and I want to share with you what I have learned so far.

   It is important to know the different ways that greenwashing can show up.  There are five categories that greenwashing campaigns can fall under such as: use of environmental images, misleading labels, hidden trade-offs, irrelevant claims and stating since there are worse options out there, their choice is environmentally friendly. This may seem like a lot to think about when you are shopping for a good or a service, but I have some definitions & examples that I think may help. 

5 Categories:

  1. Use of environmental images: Greenwashing can be as simple as creating a label decorated with a forest, lake, or mountain landscape. This use of imagery distracts from what is in the product and what it is made out of.
  2. Misleading Labels: When a label says “100% organic or made from 100% recycled materials” check the ingredients or investigate it further, because oftentimes there is no way of the company supporting this claim
  3. Hidden Trade-Offs: This method requires more research on the part of the consumer, since it is difficult to know what is going on behind the scenes of a manufacturing operation.  An example of this could be a car company claiming that they have net zero manufacturing operations, when they are buying carbon credits from an electric car company and not making any additional effort to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions.  
  4. Irrelevant Claims: This is when a company makes their product or service appear environmentally sustainable by associating it with irrelevant facts.  For example, a company can slap on the ‘not tested on animals label’, when that particular product never had a history of being tested on animals. 
  5. The Lesser of Two Evils: This is when a company makes their good or service appear eco-friendly by comparing it to a competitor that has a product even more damaging to the environment.  It will sound too good to be true or like a contradiction, take for example organic cigarettes, they are still cigarettes but because they are organic, they are marketed as good for the environment. However, cigarette buts organic or not are still one of the biggest contributors to littering in the United States.


   The biggest takeaway from my research is to do your own investigating and if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. It is important that both consumers and industries hold businesses accountable for their sustainability claims & commitments. Therefore, this month I challenge you to pick one product or service that you use frequently and see if they just talk the talk or if they also walk the walk.




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