What is Greenwashing and How Do I Avoid Being Tricked?

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What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to the practice of using misleading marketing techniques to promote an organization’s products and efforts as environmentally friendly to gain a competitive advantage. A growing number of consumers are making a conscious effort to reduce their environmental impact by selecting sustainable products. Unfortunately, some companies and marketers have responded by increasingly using misleading information and labels such as “eco-friendly,” “organic,” “sustainably made” and “all-natural” to make products appeal more to the eco-conscious consumer market.

Essentially it’s a marketing ploy to make you believe a company or product is green and eco-friendly. You may not be aware of the term greenwashing. But walk into any store or supermarket, and you’re bound to see examples of greenwashing on everything from personal care products such as lotions and even toothpaste to laundry detergent, diapers, milk, and dishwashing soap.

Where did the term greenwashing come from?

In a 1986 essay, American environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term greenwashing. In the essay, he posited that the little cards you see in hotels encouraging the reuse of towels were actually efforts to save on laundry bills, not driven by environmental concerns.

“I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs,” Westerveld explained. “They were in the middle of expanding at the time, and were building more bungalows.”

The Guardian

Since then, the term greenwashing has caught on, and today it’s being used to explain the practice of appearing to care for the environment but, in reality, having ulterior motives.

The dirty business of greenwashing

What is GreenWashing and How Do I Avoid Being Tricked?

Companies may emphasize a minor “eco-friendly” feature or distinction of their product while “forgetting” to mention that, on the whole, their product or process is not at all environmentally friendly. Indeed, it is easy for a company to emphasize the greenness of their products or services by making these vague claims such as being “eco-friendly” or “sustainably made.” Or by using product packaging with green images (such as a green leaf, green grass, flowers, plants, and more) that indicate an (unjustified) green brand image. Instinctively, we, as consumers, assume that such products are actually more eco-friendly. But without data to back it up, these unsubstantiated claims of being green and sustainable are merely part of the dirty business of greenwashing.

How to spot greenwashing?

Companies engage in greenwashing in a number of ways. The Selling Sustainability Report outlines several greenwashing marketing tactics to look out for, from outright lying to making claims that are not scientifically substantiated to labels that don’t really mean anything.

  • Fluffy language: watch out for fluffy language such as “eco-friendly” (and generally words or labels with no scientific data to back up the eco-friendliness).
  • Suggestive pictures: such as green images (flower field, green grass) that indicate a green brand image.
  • Irrelevant claims: attributes that focus on a minor, often irrelevant, aspect of the product or process distracting from the fact that, on the whole, it’s everything but environmentally friendly.
  • Best in class: claims declaring that the product or company is better than others (without being able to support this claim).
  • No proof: look out for unsubstantiated claims of being green.
What is GreenWashing and How Do I Avoid Being Tricked When Looking for Fragrance-Free Products?

5 tips to spot greenwashing

Now that you know how companies and marketers use communication tactics to persuade consumers of a greener, unjustified image, you know how to avoid being misled.

When in doubt, look out for the following:

1. Green images

Be wary of “natural” green imagery. Most people are visual creatures, and in a rush, it’s quicker to scan for a green image than read the small print on a product.

That’s why marketers love dressing products up in images and colors associated with eco-friendliness.

2. Buzzwords

Don’t be dazzled by buzzwords and vague claims with little meaning. Looking for actual evidence backing any claims that a product or brand is “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” Words alone do not mean anything.

3. Read the label

Does the label on the product make sense? The simple rule of reading a label: the shorter the list, the better. This is the same when it comes to products containing allergens and other harmful content.

Everyone can claim that their product is the best and slap on a few green images to portray a green brand image. But check if the data actually back up the claims.

4. Research

Do your homework. Many of the larger corporations have sub-brands that are marketed as environmentally friendly.

As a result, a small sustainable brand could just be a large corporation’s attempt at catering to environmentally conscious consumers (without really changing their ways).

5. Low price

Low prices can often, but not always, be an indicator of a product that is not environmentally friendly, despite its claims. If a product claiming to be eco-friendly is a lot cheaper than competing eco-friendly brands, then go through steps 1-4. You’ve likely encountered a greenwashed product.


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