Greenwashing: What It Is and What You Can Do About It

Put together by the team at Annuity.org

As someone who cares about the Earth and its limited resources, you likely face daily decisions about how to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle. From cleaning products to clothes to your beauty routine, it can be difficult to know how to make the most sustainable choices.

While many companies employ green marketing strategies to reach eco-conscious consumers, others take advantage of unsuspecting consumers through greenwashed marketing. Keep reading to learn more about greenwashing and how to avoid it.

Greenwashing: gloved hands holding plastic cup waste

What Is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic in which a company touts eco-friendly products and practices without action to back up its claims. Greenwashing is often used to mislead well-intentioned consumers who think they’re making a sustainable choice by buying a certain product, when in reality, that “eco-friendly” product may actually be harmful to the environment. 

Greenwashing can often be seen in a product’s packaging, and may include things like:

  • Vague claims of sustainability
  • Use of the color green
  • Earthy, natural elements
  • Health and sustainability buzzwords
  • Unfounded or unrealistic claims

A Brief History on Greenwashing

The practice of greenwashing dates back to the 1960s, when the nuclear power division of Westinghouse Electric Company published a series of ads that claimed its nuclear power plants were clean and safe. The ads failed to address concerns about the environmental impact of nuclear waste and even appeared after nuclear meltdowns had already occurred in two states. 

Undergraduate student Jay Westerveld officially coined the term “greenwashing” in 1986, when he wrote a term paper about multiculturalism. He recalled a memory from when he was traveling in Samoa, when he saw a note at a large beachside resort asking customers to reuse their beach towels in an effort to help the environment. The note struck him as ironic — the resort was claiming to protect the local ecosystem, but was also expanding at the time. 

The term appeared in print just a year after the oil company Chevron launched its People Do campaign, which showed employees protecting wildlife. At the time the ads were running, Chevron was violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and was spilling oil into wildlife refuges. 

Greenwashing has become much more prominent since then, and continues to be a problem today.

Greenwashing: hand at beach holding disposable coffee cup lid

Greenwashing Examples

Nearly anything can be greenwashed — even bottled water! Keep reading for examples of commonly greenwashed products.

Home cleaners

Many cleaning solutions that are labeled “natural” or “nontoxic” can still cause significant damage to the environment. That’s because these labels are nothing more than buzzwords that have no legal definition and are unregulated. So a “nontoxic” home cleaning product could actually contain known toxins in its ingredient list.

Food and beverages

The food and beverage industry is no stranger to greenwashing. By using the color green and earthy design elements on labels, food and beverage companies trick customers into thinking they’re making a more environmentally friendly choice. The reality is that this packaging contributes heavily to plastic pollution and overall waste.

Clothing

Fast fashion — the mass production of clothing, shoes, and accessories — is a major cause of environmental damage. In fact, the fashion industry is responsible for 5 percent of the world’s gas emissions. Clothing companies are guilty of greenwashing when they make big (and often vague) promises to reduce carbon emissions or label clothing as “sustainable” without much of anything to back up their claims. 

Clothing itself is also often made from synthetic materials, which aren’t biodegradable, and is usually not recycled.

Furniture

Furniture companies will sometimes claim that the materials used to make their products are sustainably sourced and produced, when that may not be necessarily true. Raw materials used to make furniture are sometimes illegally sourced (furniture companies might not be aware of this) and are treated with harmful chemicals.

Reusable plastic bags

Just because a bag is reusable doesn’t mean it still isn’t made of plastic. And since plastic bags aren’t recyclable, they will eventually end up in a landfill. Plastic is produced with fossil fuels and never decomposes, which threatens wildlife and spreads toxic substances throughout the air and soil.

Menstrual products

Tampons are often made of cotton treated with toxic chemicals, which is harmful for both your body and the Earth. Plastic tampon applicators and disposable pads also end up in the landfill, where they remain for many years.

Greenwashing vs. Green Marketing

Though they sound similar, green marketing and greenwashing are not the same thing. As we’ve already covered, greenwashing is when a company makes unsubstantiated claims or employs misleading imagery to promote a non-eco-friendly product as eco-friendly. 

Green marketing, on the other hand, is when a company focuses on the honest promotion of eco-friendly products and its sustainability efforts. With green marketing, there must be verifiable proof to back up claims. 

As eco-friendliness becomes an increasingly important value to many consumers, businesses have realized that green sells. In fact, over one-third of shoppers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. For many businesses that do not offer products that are actually environmentally friendly and do not uphold values of environmental sustainability, they turn to greenwashing to increase sales. 

Greenwashing: green gloved fingers holding leaves

Tips to Avoid Greenwashing 

Remember that as a consumer, you have the power to affect change. The purchases you choose to make can influence what products are sold and the way those products are manufactured. 

Use that power for good by avoiding greenwashed products, and instead choosing to purchase from companies that are making a concerted effort to positively impact the environment. 

Here’s how to identify greenwashing:

  1. Pay attention to packaging: Look for green colors and earthy elements like leaves or trees, especially if they differ from the company’s usual brand colors or design. 
  2. Investigate claims: If you see a claim about sustainability practices on a product label, dig a little deeper. Look for more information online, and be wary of broad, vague language. 
  3. Ask questions: If you’re unsure about something, reach out to the company directly and question their claims. Look out for transparency — it can be telling of their objectives and actions. 
  4. Watch for buzzwords: Subjective words or phrases have no legal definition and are often unsubstantiated. Examples include “natural,” “clean,” “healthy,” “nontoxic,” and “eco-friendly,” among many others. 
  5. Look for certification: This especially applies to products that claim to be “organic” or “fair trade.” If you don’t see a certification label, the product likely does not live up to its claims. 

How To Make Sustainable Choices

Now that you know how to identify greenwashed products, learn how to shop in a way that truly supports a sustainable lifestyle and reduces your carbon footprint. 

  1. Do your research: If you’re in need of a particular product, research companies that sell that product before you go shopping. That way, you can feel confident about your purchase and are less likely to fall victim to greenwashed advertising at the store. 
  2. Buy local: Products that are made locally don’t have to travel as far to reach you, which means less greenhouse gas emissions being released into the air. 
  3. Choose recyclable materials: Look for products with minimal packaging made from recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable materials. Avoid plastic whenever possible. 
  4. Shop secondhand: When it comes to clothing, furniture, and other home decor items, try searching on local online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, or at garage sales or thrift stores. 
  5. Buy less: Reducing the amount you buy and using what you already have is a great way to reduce overall waste. 

Shop Smart, Save the Planet

By following the tips above, you’ll be able to better identify greenwashing when you see it and make a more informed decision about what you choose to purchase. Small changes can make a big difference, so keep using your power as a consumer to make your voice heard. 

Learn more about how to use your hard-earned money for things that matter at Annuity.org.

Greenwashing

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