One of the most frequent questions I get asked – whether people know it or not – is “what is greenwashing?”.
Whether they’re asking that question directly or wondering whether they can trust a certain brand, the idea remains the same: can I trust this company, or is it just a bunch of BS?
Well, let’s chat.
So what is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is very simple: it’s a marketing push by companies to make themselves appear more eco-friendly without actually doing the work.
The company spends their money on marketing themselves as green rather than spending the money to actually implement more green practices.
What word you might see:
- Eco-friendly. What does this mean? How? In what ways does this product reduce its impact on the environment?
- Biodegradable. An item’s ability to break down and go back to nature, which requires enough heat, moisture, and oxygen. As a selling point for products, the term alone means nothing – the item could take thousands of years to break down.
- 100% natural or chemical-free. Natural means nothing. (Cyanide? 100% natural!) And “chemical-free” is just patently untrue. (Hi, water’s a chemical y’all.)
Double negative points if none of their claims are verified by outside sources. (Even then, it’s worth looking into how valid the certifications they get are. There are tons of outside verification programs that aren’t particularly strenuous.)
Basically, if the claims can’t be verified or measured, it’s greenwashing.
And while many people are hyper-focused on products (because – like the whole zero waste movement – they’re easy to criticize), greenwashing is also often about misleading policy.
Examples of greenwashing
Weirdly, we wouldn’t need to reduce carbon emissions quite so much if you didn’t ship your water 5,000 miles.
“Its Fiji Water subsidiary, which has been turned into a lifestyle brand of bottled water through expert marketing, ships its product more than 5,000 miles to the U.S. from a Pacific island country, a trip requiring the burning of a great deal of fossil fuel (a major contributor to climate change), even though importing bottled water to the U.S. is wasteful and unnecessary.”
Read more about one of the most evil couples in the world, the Resnicks, who own Fiji water.
My very-hated energy company Duke Energy is king of greenwashing. (So are most energy companies in the US, to be fair.)
Despite major promises to make radical changes, in 2017 “Duke Energy utilities and infrastructure generated only 1 percent of their electricity (net output MWh) from hydro and solar, with the remainder from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear.”
In 2020, that number still hovers at about 3%. Much renewable. So green.
Restaurants and events are doing great things by using compostable products, right?
If they’re going to the landfill, no. If they are industrial composting only and your closest facility is over 100 miles away, no. Chances are a company is just taking advantage of a business’ desire to do good.
Amazon founded The Climate Pledge in late 2019 in an attempt to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040.
This petition to the SEC to take legal action against Amazon outlines the issues very clearly. Among the complaints, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute contends:
- Amazon has nothing to do with the Paris Climate Agreement;
- The company cannot make a difference to global climate;
- Amazon misleads on electric vehicles;
among other reasons. While I don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the institute’s policy, I think it’s fair to be hyper-critical of companies like Amazon exploiting the current green trend.
Again. Amazon does absolutely nothing substantive for the environment except to ruin it by promoting overconsumption and exploiting its workers while benefiting its ultra-rich owners.
Proctor & Gamble
Proctor & Gamble made a bold declaration to reduce their emissions by 50%. Great, right?
Not so much.
“Procter & Gamble, which creates [toilet paper brand] Charmin, is committed to reducing its annual emissions by 50 percent by 2030. However, these only include Scope 1 and 2 emissions, failing to account for Scope 3 emissions, which include impacts from forestry used to source their products… This means P&G’s climate commitment really only applies for 2 percent of the corporation’s estimated emissions throughout its supply chain (which itself is a conservative estimate).”
2% and 50% – big difference.
What should I do when I think I see greenwashing?
- Consider the “too good to be true” factor. If you hear a mega-company is planning to carbon offset 100% of its emissions or cut their carbon emissions by 50% or something else magical, start digging. If it sounds too good to be true, let’s be real: it probably is.
- Ignore the branding and look at the product. Don’t be taken in by the little green leaf next to the logo or the eco-friendly buzzwords underneath the product’s name. Instead, take a look at things like the product’s ingredient list, outside certifications, and any indicator beyond what a marketing team thought seemed “green”.
- Look for a sustainability page on their site. Their website should have some sort of sustainability page, so it should have detailed information, data, and a way to track their supply chain. If it’s just meaningless buzzwords or flowery prose, it’s probably a bunch of greenwashing.
- Google their claims. When you see big, bold, green words on the label of a product, google it! What exactly does “eco-friendly” mean? “Natural”? (Nothing.) See what the certifications are and whether there are any positive or negative press pieces have come out recently. If they’re a decent-sized company, a search should turn up a few interesting articles at least.
- Ask questions. Find customer support and shoot them a question. Ask where their factories are and what outside certifications they have! Ask to see outside verification about their claims of compostability!
Final thoughts on greenwashing
No brand will ever be perfect. It’s important to give them some grace – particularly small brands that appear to be making a sincere effort – but to hold brands accountable nonetheless.
In particular large brands like Amazon and Procter & Gamble should be held to an even higher standard. As long as they perpetuate mass consumption of unsustainable products on a massive scale, they should be scrutinized.
The easiest way to avoid greenwashing is to simply avoid buying unnecessary products. When you do have to buy, plan ahead to make sure you have time to make good choices that won’t leave you with a feeling of eco-guilt.