Companies often use greenwashing to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. Most people want to believe they’re buying sustainable products that benefit themselves and reduce climate change. Unfortunately, many businesses mislead customers with the dishonest marketing strategy known as greenwashing.
Businesses greenwash consumers in various ways to make products seem more eco-friendly. It’s a technique to make customers think they’re helping the environment by choosing certain brands or items.
Companies reel in unwitting consumers with advertising tactics like sustainable buzzwords and images of nature. However, they only confuse customers by concealing the true environmental impact of the products.
Greenwashing occurs more often than you’d think because companies know it helps increase their profits. According to a 2015 Nielson poll, around two-thirds of shoppers said they’d pay more for sustainable products. Half of them considered a product’s environmental impact before making a purchase.
Below, we’ll tell you how to spot greenwashing in your local stores, so you don’t fall victim to false claims.
Seven Telltale Signs of Greenwashing
As awareness about climate change grows, companies have become more clever about concealing their environmental footprint. Greenwashing tricks many well-meaning consumers daily, so it’s essential to use a discerning eye while shopping. Here are a few common warning signs of greenwashing:
1. Hiding Information Is Greenwashing
Companies often boast about how their products benefit the environment while ignoring their negative aspects. For example, an electric vehicle manufacturer may brag about lowering carbon emissions. However, they might fail to mention that the rare earth minerals used in their lithium batteries came from environmentally damaging mining activities.
2. Feel-Good Stories Can Be Greenwashing
Have you ever seen a commercial where people use dish soap to clean oil-soaked animals? Oil companies often donate dishwashing soap to animal care centers so handlers can clean affected animals–then they tout the donation as a positive behavior. This example represents greenwashing because oil companies don’t take accountability for their actions. Instead, they highlight their positive actions while ignoring how their oil spill harmed the wildlife.
3. Hidden Trade-Offs Imply They Reduce Climate Change (But Actually Don’t)
Businesses might draw attention to ‘greener’ products while downplaying or ignoring their negative impacts. For instance, tech giant Apple stopped shipping its phones with earbuds or chargers in 2020. They claimed the move would reduce e-waste, which is true. However, this change ignores the elephant in the room, the company’s strategy of planned obsolescence.
4. False or Unverifiable Claims Are Greenwashing
If you look at product labels, you might see claims about a product’s sustainability. The item may say something like “made with natural ingredients” without any certifications or evidence to support the claim. This type of greenwashing is rampant with food products since government regulations are lax.
5. ‘Fluffy’ Language Implies a Sustainable Product
Pay attention to the language companies use when deciding on a product. If you see vague phrases like ‘non-toxic’ or ‘made with organic ingredients,’ it’s most likely greenwashing. Other buzzwords or “greenspeak” might include ‘vegan approved’ or ‘environmentally friendly.’ Unless a company displays a USDA organic certification or other verifiable evidence, you should take their claims with a grain of salt.
In addition, a company may claim to use recyclable plastic in its products. However, it’s unverifiable if it doesn’t have the universal recycling symbol with three green arrows.
6. Irrelevant Claims Regarding the Reduction of Climate Change
Other brands greenwash consumers by making legitimate claims irrelevant to their sustainability. Examples include trash bags labeled as recyclable, even though the bags usually end up in the trash. Most consumers wouldn’t go to the trouble of emptying and washing out the bags to recycle them. Or, a company may advertise an aerosol spray or refrigerant as “CFC-free,” even though the United States banned these chemicals in the late 1970s.
7. Nature Scenery Creates the Idea of a Sustainable Product
Placing images of nature on a product can easily fool the savviest shoppers. For instance, labels with scenes of a green meadow or beautiful mountain ranges invoke a sense of perfection. Companies know these pictures will attract customers and convince them to buy their products. People are visual creatures, so they tend to focus on images without reading labels. For example, many dishwashing liquids and soaps display pictures of flowers, yet their products often contain harmful chemicals.
Difference Between Green Marketing vs. Greenwashing
Not all companies who advertise as being environmentally conscious have bad intentions. Some want to protect the planet and make every effort to operate sustainably. Greenwashing corporations claim to care about the environment while concealing the truth from consumers.
However, brands that follow green practices have evidence to substantiate their claims. They use green marketing to highlight their positive impact on the environment. Signs of a sustainable product include these examples:
- Manufactured sustainably
- Minimal packaging materials
- No toxic chemicals or ingredients
- Made with recycled items or able to be recycled
- Made with biodegradable items
- Able to be reused or recycled
How to Avoid Greenwashing
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, you can use the following guidelines to differentiate between greenwashing vs. green marketing.
- If a product can explain its positive environmental impact without using buzzwords and offers verifiable evidence, it passes the greenwashing test.
- Marketing claims clarify whether the packaging, product or both benefit the planet. The company will use clear language and avoid meaningless labels.
- The advertising doesn’t use overinflated phrases or embellish its environmental impact.
- If the product compares itself to a competing brand, it provides evidence to support its claims.
- The product displays third-party certifications, such as USDA-certified organic, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and Certified Vegan.
Final Thoughts on Knowing the Key Signs When a Company Is Greenwashing You
Greenwashing frequently happens in the marketing world due to poor regulations. Companies can get away with almost anything aside from lying outright. In the last decade, consumers have become painfully aware of the environmental impacts of human activities. Therefore, many environmentally conscious shoppers want to buy products that protect the planet.
Unfortunately, well-meaning consumers often fall victim to greenwashing if they don’t research products beforehand. Watch for common buzzwords like ‘all-natural’ or beautiful images of nature on labels. These tactics often trick consumers into buying products that give a facade of purity while actively damaging the planet.