What is Greenwashing and How Can You Avoid It?

Karenna Bryan
February 23, 2024

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and seen items with green packaging or a product that’s labeled as “sustainable”? While some brands are legitimately sustainable, other brands create products with green packaging as a marketing gimmick. This is an example of greenwashing. 

The term greenwashing was coined in the 1980s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. Westerveld first used this term on a research trip to Samoa, but he stopped in Fiji. He noticed that the resort asked customers to reuse their towels in an effort to stop ecological damage. He found it ironic since the resort was expanding and building more bungalows. He wrote an essay about his experience and thus the term greenwashing was born.

With climate change becoming a more popular topic, consumers are ready to go green. According to Forbes, ⅔ of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. With this in mind, some companies will allure consumers with “ecologically-friendly” products in order to increase revenue. However, they may not be telling the full truth of their products.

The Federal Trade Commission works to protect consumers from unfair business that could mislead consumers. Since 1992, the FTC has begun to regulate greenwashing and has filed lawsuits to different companies who break their environmental marketing guidelines.  

A few larger companies have been accused of greenwashing such as Coca-Cola and Nestle. Coca-Cola raised questions in 2020 when it refused to remove plastic bottles as it was “popular with consumers”. Nestle faced similar backlash when it came to their packaging. In 2018, the company set a goal for its packaging to be 100% recycled by 2025. However, since that statement no change or plan has been released by the company. Nestle and Coca-Cola are the top plastic polluters in the world. 

Coca-Cola Greenwashing Advertisment

It may be obvious to tell that products are greenwashing but others might be more difficult to determine.

Here are some tips to avoid greenwashing on your next trip to the store.

Research before you Buy

  • If a product is certified from credible third parties such as B-Corp, Fair Trade, USDA Organic, you can trust the product is truly sustainable.There are several websites like Green America that have a database of businesses they’ve researched that are environmentally and socially responsible.

Click here to learn more about B-Corps and Fashion B-Corps

Looking for “Fluff” words

  • Brands will try to lure consumers in with words such as “natural”, “organic”, “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable” or “green”. For example, green is a vague term that has no true definition. While many associate the word to environmentalism, it has no value. Natural doesn’t mean the ingredients are beneficial for the consumer and natural could be defined as anything found in nature. Organic can be defined as products without pesticides or genetic modification. However, the term “organic” doesn’t mean the products aren’t contributing to deforestation. While there are parts of a products’ packaging that could be biodegradable, most of the packaging is still damaging to the earth.

How Brands Advertise

  • The easiest way consumers get confused if a brand is sustainable is by the packaging of the product. Many people associate the color green with the environment, so companies try to trick consumers by making their packaging green. Also, companies will use images such as nature background or brown recyclable paper.

Examples of Greenwashing

One wrong for another

  • This phrase can be defined when a company highlights the benefits of products but these “benefits” are still harmful to the earth. For example products being created with cotton instead of artificial dyes. Although, the way the cotton is treated with pesticides makes it misleading and damaging to the earth.

Not all businesses that greenwash have bad intentions. Some businesses just aren’t sure what being truly sustainable means, so they end up missing the mark. 

For businesses that want to avoid greenwashing, here are some tips:

Be Transparent with Consumers

  • The best way to do this is to be honest! Stay away from phrases you're unfamiliar with and let consumers know what sustainable efforts you’re taking. Don’t claim anything that your company can’t back up with evidence. Consumers will appreciate your company making an effort to help the environment.

Set Realistic Goals

  • While your company goal is to reach net-zero, start with small steps such as changing your product’s packaging or calculating your company’s carbon footprint to see where changes can be made. Also, the improvement of being sustainable creates stakeholder loyalty and trust between your company and customers.

In order to calculate you or your business’s carbon footprint, use the business emissions calculator

Companies will use the different phrases and words like the ones above but have no proof to back up their claims that they're sustainable. Greenwashing misleads consumers who want to make a change to better themselves and the environment. Researching companies before your next trip to the store can help you avoid greenwashing and support companies who are doing their part to help the environment. 

With the growing conversation of climate, do your part and shop sustainable!

Karenna Bryan
February 23, 2024

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