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Delights of Greenwashing

Image of a green field being pulled aside to reveal a smoggy city
Image Credit: Morgan Shackelford

While April has passed, with climate change, every month is Earth month. Eco-friendly products and lifestyles are becoming increasingly common and encouraged (no complaints here), but that means sometimes companies want on the bandwagon without doing the work. At some point, you may have heard the term ‘greenwashing’ thrown around; that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about today. It’s a term that was first used in the 1980’s, but its relevance has only increased with time. 

What is it? 

Greenwashing is a term used when a company or product is described as environmentally friendly, but doesn’t follow through on those claims. This is mainly done to appeal to environmentally concerned consumers in order to convince them to buy more of a product, or to bolster a company’s reputation. 

Calling bio-plastic compostable, but not acknowledging that specialized, costly facilities are required to compost it (read up on that here) is greenwashing. Making a product that can be refilled, but refills are packaged in plastic or are otherwise of a purely disposable nature, is greenwashing. Marketing a product or launching an ad campaign purely to associate a product with green values without changing business practices is greenwashing. 

Why does it happen? 

There is no legal definition for terms like sustainable or eco-friendly, and no regulations around how a company can use them. This makes it easy to make claims about a product without actually putting in the work to change anything.  

Is it more complicated than that?  

Yep! Of course, nothing is simple. There are so many ways that a greenwashing situation could become messy. Let’s say a green company is bought out by a larger, demonstrably non-environmentally friendly company. Is that smaller label still ‘green’? Or are they a front for another company, to let them acquire a better image? 

In situations like this, the involved parties are likely to give one of two responses. The small company may argue that they went with the buy-out so they can change the larger company from the inside out, applying environmentally friendly policy and encouraging change as a member of a larger group. Other times, the large company will argue that they are making efforts to be more green and so bought out the label, but it will take time for them to adjust, asking their customers for patience.  

Are either arguments valid? To some degree, they both are. In the best case scenario, a small company making waves may garner interest from a larger one who is interested in joining forces and recruiting experts in going green. For that matter, any industry will need some time to make adjustments, and it may take time for those changes to settle.  

However, a corporation buying out a green label, all the while maintaining the original environmental practices of the company, won’t do anyone any good; its deceptive to the consumer, making them believe they are making decisions with the planet in mind when in reality they are supporting a business that doesn’t share those interests. If that’s the case, the product or situation in question is a green-washed one.  

How can you tell if its greenwashing? 

A good rule of thumb is that if a company only displays surface level interest in the environment (I.e., the bulk of their products are unchanged despite announcing more sustainable initiatives, carbon sequestration programs put in place without releasing a plan for future carbon emission reduction), then you should be skeptical. For that matter, if a company is making claims that are sketchy, like a palm oil company saying their plantations are good for the environment because of all the trees they plant, do some digging before you believe them. Check who owns the brand you are buying from; if it’s a small producer, you’re more likely to get answers and accountability. Larger brands may be under the umbrella of a larger label, or hiding their actual business practices, so be cautious.  

What can you do about it? 

Check your sources, and when you see a company participating in greenwashing, call them out! Encourage legislation that would introduce concrete definitions for terms like ‘sustainable’ and ‘eco-friendly’ to prevent their misuse. Consider the impact of a product, and if it really can measure up to what it claims to be. In essence, be skeptical as a consumer and advocate for what you want to see in the world.