How to Spot Greenwashing: A Straightforward Guide
By Rose Morrison, managing editor of Renovated
As a conscious consumer, you may be eager to make sustainable choices when you shop. However, with all the marketing and advertising, it can be challenging to distinguish genuinely eco-friendly products from those simply greenwashing.
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Greenwashing is a deceptive practice where companies exaggerate or falsely claim their products are environmentally friendly to attract eco-conscious consumers. The desire to boost sales and enhance their public image may drive companies to greenwash. Consumers are now more environmentally conscious than ever, so eco-friendliness can attract a broader customer base and help companies tap into the growing market for sustainable products.
More than 60% of consumers report they will pay more for a product if its packaging is sustainable. In the U.S., 68% of executives admitted their companies are guilty of greenwashing. This practice is largely due to companies wanting to drive profits and take advantage of current environmentally friendly “trends.”
To help you make informed choices, here are some easy ways to spot greenwashing while shopping:
The first step in spotting greenwashing is to look beyond the colorful, nature-themed packaging. Beautiful images of forests, animals, leaves or flowers might look appealing, but don’t let them distract you. These pictures don’t guarantee the product’s sustainability. Instead, focus on the specific claims and certifications mentioned on the packaging.
Certifications from reputable organizations can be a reliable indicator of a product’s environmental credentials. Look for labels like “USDA Organic,” “Fair Trade Certified,” “Energy Star,” or “Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified.” These certifications require companies to meet specific environmental and ethical standards, and they’re a good sign that the product is genuinely eco-friendly.
Be wary of vague or overly optimistic claims on product labels. Phrases like “eco-friendly,” “green,” or “natural” can be misleading, as they lack specific information. Instead, look for concrete details about a product’s sustainability features, like reduced energy consumption, recycled materials or biodegradability. The more specific the information, the more likely it is to be genuine.
Dig deeper into the ingredients or materials used in the product. Greenwashing often occurs when companies emphasize one environmentally friendly aspect while neglecting others. For example, a product might boast about its recyclable packaging but ignore the harmful chemicals in its contents. Read ingredient lists and do some research if necessary to ensure all aspects of the product align with your environmental values.
Beware of buzzwords like “green,” “natural,” or “eco-conscious” used excessively in marketing materials. Companies may use these words to create the illusion of sustainability without making any real efforts to reduce their environmental impact. Look for evidence of sustainable practices, like reduced carbon emissions, ethical labor practices and responsible sourcing of materials.
Research the company’s history when it comes to sustainability. Are they involved in meaningful environmental initiatives, or are their claims only surface deep? Check for reports on their environmental impact and their efforts to reduce it. Companies with a genuine commitment to sustainability will have a transparent history of their actions.
Don’t rely solely on the company’s claims and marketing materials. Seek out reviews from trusted sources or online communities dedicated to eco-friendly shopping. Other consumers can provide valuable insights into whether a product lives up to its green claims. If multiple reviews raise concerns about greenwashing, it’s worth considering alternate options.
Some products claim to be environmentally friendly because they use “green” chemicals or materials. However, the term “green” can be subjective and open to interpretation. Investigate the chemicals or materials the company used and their potential environmental impact. Look for third-party certifications that verify the safety and eco-friendliness of these components.
Celebrity endorsements can lend credibility to a product, but may not guarantee its environmental authenticity. Companies often use well-known figures to distract consumers from critically investigating their claims. Instead of relying only on endorsements, delve into the product’s details and verify its sustainability through certifications and transparent information.
Some companies may greenwash by making claims that are true but not relevant to the sustainability of the product. For example, trash bags labeled as “recyclable” when that’s their purpose anyway.
Pay attention to the materials used in a product’s packaging. Even if a product itself is eco-friendly, excessive or non-recyclable packaging can negate its environmental benefits. Look for products with minimal and recyclable packaging or biodegradable materials. Companies truly concerned about the environment will often prioritize eco-friendly packaging.
Evaluate whether a product has a positive or negative impact on biodiversity. Products that harm ecosystems, contribute to deforestation or exploit wildlife are unlikely to be sustainable.
Products claiming to be fair trade often imply ethical treatment of workers and communities. Verify these claims by checking for certifications from organizations like Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International, which ensure fair wages and working conditions for producers.
Be cautious of products that claim to be “chemical-free.” Chemicals make up everything and they aren’t always a bad thing, so these claims are often misleading. Instead, focus on products that are free from harmful or toxic chemicals.
Consider a product’s water and energy consumption during its lifecycle. Truly sustainable products will often have features that minimize resource usage, like energy-efficient manufacturing processes or water-saving technologies. These companies won’t contribute to water pollution during their production.
True sustainability extends beyond the initial purchase. Consider a product’s longevity and durability before buying. Products that need frequent replacements due to poor quality or planned obsolescence aren’t environmentally friendly, no matter how green their marketing claims may be. Rather, choose items designed for long-lasting and reparability.
In today’s consumer market, greenwashing is becoming a regular practice, making it crucial for consumers to be discerning. You can become a more informed and responsible shopper by remaining vigilant about common greenwashing and marketing tactics.
When you add these strategies to your shopping routine, you’ll be better equipped to identify and avoid greenwashing, allowing you to make truly sustainable and environmentally responsible choices.
About the Author
Rose is the managing editor of Renovated and has been writing in the construction industry for over five years. She’s most passionate about sustainable building and incorporating similar resourceful methods into our world. For more from Rose, you can follow her on Twitter.