What Is Greenwashing and How to Spot It?
In the last decade, there has been a considerable rise in the demand for sustainable consumer goods. As the sustainable fashion, green beauty, and zero-waste movements have gained hold in the conversation around the climate crisis, big brands have realized that sustainability sells. But is what they’re selling truly sustainable?
When we talk about greenwashing, what we’re really talking about is marketing. Marketing is the tool that businesses use to get you to buy their product, and although the law requires that claims in advertising “must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence,” much of the claims that marketers make continue to go unregulated.
When a company claims that their product is “green,” “clean,” “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” or “all-natural” but it really isn’t, that’s greenwashing. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “behavior or activities that make people believe a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.” It’s when a company puts more money and effort into marketing themselves as “sustainable” than into addressing their actual impact.
WHY IS GREENWASHING A PROBLEM?
Greenwashing is misleading to consumers and detracts from the work being done by brands that are operating sustainably. Greenwashers with big marketing budgets can easily take control of the market and push out smaller brands that are more transparent and eco-friendly in their practices. For consumers, this is not only confusing, but disempowering. If we “vote with our dollars,” then greenwashing directly usurps even that power of ours to make a difference.
But it’s not just about the product—it’s the system by which the product gets to you. As consumers we rarely get to peek into the supply chain behind the things we buy. The entire lifecycle of a product—from the farm to the factory to what happens when you’re done with it—affects the environmental impact of a product. Can a t-shirt really be “good for the planet” if it’s made from 50% organic cotton and 50% polyester so it’s impossible to recycle or biodegrade? Can a dish soap truly be “green” if it uses palm oil and is packaged in plastic? We don’t think so.
Transparency in the supply chain is one reason why we love being a small business. We operate at a capacity that allows us to put a lot of thought and research into how we source, package, and distribute our products, so we know the impact at every step of the process. Keeping our business small means that we get to forge relationships with organic farmers and American paper tube manufacturers and support sustainable producers with our work. It also means that we are able to ensure that our partners operate in a way that is aligned with our values.
There is a lot of buzz about transparency today, but transparency alone cannot hold companies accountable for the impact they make. For big businesses and conglomerates, their supply chains are so complex and far-reaching that it would be impossible to track down the exact farm where the olive oil in your particular bar of hand soap was grown, or to find out whether the people who packaged it were paid a fair wage.
Even with “radical transparency” around factories and production costs, larger brands like Everlane and H&M still fall short when it comes to sustainability and ethics. In a Vogue article discussing H&M’s multi-layered approach to sustainability, the company admits that it doesn’t intend to change the one thing that could make the biggest difference: its production volume.
Big brands could choose to change the way they operate, but that would require them to stop growing and reduce profits. To be truly sustainable, they would need to slow down their production significantly in order to detangle the damage that their supply chains have done in the past before determining how best to make a positive impact in the future.
Capitalism and the demand for constant growth in profits is ultimately what encourages companies to operate in unsustainable ways and rely on greenwashing to trick consumers into buying more stuff. Instead of simply saying that greenwashing is bad, we’re questioning the inherent unsustainability of the system that drives it.
SHOPPING WILL NOT SAVE THE PLANET
While voting with our dollars is great (if you can access it and choose to do it), ultimately shopping can’t save the planet. True environmental justice demands a drastic reorganization of our system, much more than a simple switch in consumer behavior. As we discussed in our blog Is Zero Waste Sustainable?, effective movements for change don’t come from the capitalistic act of shopping.
Greenwashing just proves that corporate oligarchs will always win under our current system, no matter how many of us decide to buy organic and fair-trade. Rather than trying to shop our way out of an exploitative, extractive system, we must imagine a world where nontoxic, environmentally sustainable, effective products are the norm and the laborers who produce them are provided with dignified work and fair wages.
We imagine that world by practicing it. We certainly aren’t perfect, but we do try to do business by our values before our profits. One way we do that is by never communicating about our products in a way that is greenwashing or fear mongering. We are careful not to tout a claim we can’t substantiate, nor do we want to make our customers feel like the weight of the world rests on their individual product choices. We also try to include more folks in this world of ours by making our products as multipurpose and affordable as possible, without compromising the things we care about.
HOW TO SPOT GREENWASHING
When you get to know a small brand, it’s easy to see the difference between their operations and that of a big business. But what if you’re just starting out on your journey to shopping more responsibly? When marketing is the main tool we have for learning about a product, it can be difficult to decipher who is speaking truthfully about their supply chain and who isn’t.
There are some third-party certifications like USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and GOTS for food and fashion companies. But these certifications don’t cover every industry, and they can be unreasonable for small operations to maintain or even earn in the first place. Our friends at Longseason Farm in Upstate New York ran an organic farm for many years before they could finally get certified. Many growers do use sustainable practices, even if they don’t have that organic certification, so it’s always best to have a conversation or learn more about a producer before jumping to any conclusions.
The lack of reliable regulations and certifications combined with misleading marketing materials means that we are often left without the information we need to avoid greenwashing and purchase products that are actually better for people and planet. These are our tips for spotting greenwashing and avoiding products that say they’re good for the planet, when they really aren’t:
Look Beyond The Front Label
Greenwashers often employ visual cues like leafy greens and recycled-looking brown paper on their labels in addition to general claims like “all-natural” or “eco-friendly.” Now, flip that product over to the back and read the ingredients. Do you know what all of the listed ingredients are, or is it a long list of unrecognizable multisyllabic names?
Chances are, if they are actually using “natural” ingredients, you’ll be able to recognize them. Watch out for ingredients that are detrimental to the environment even though they sound natural, like palm oil or peat moss.
Another place to look for more information on a product is the brand’s website. Do they have proof to back up their claims? Specific stories about farmers or details about their production process and supply chain are good signs, while overarching, general terms with nothing to back them up are red flags. This is also a good place to find out whether the brand you’re buying from is genuinely working to become sustainable, even if they aren’t 100% there yet.
Is The Entire Product Eco-friendly, Or Just One Aspect Of It?
Some greenwashing focuses on one aspect of a product, making its environmental benefits seem much more outsized than they actually are, while ignoring the impacts of other parts of the product. For example, a company may claim their product is “sustainable” or “green” because it uses one or two organic ingredients. But where did the rest of the ingredients come from? And what is that product packaged in?
It can be helpful to think about the impact of a product through three checkboxes:
1. Does it use ethically sourced ingredients (or raw materials) that don’t harm the environment or workers?
2. Does it come in biodegradable or recycled packaging?
3. Can it biodegrade, be reused, or confidently recycled once you’re finished using it?
What Brand Sells It And Who, Ultimately, Is Your Money Going To?
In the food industry, just about 10 companies own every product in the store. With conglomerates in the food, fashion, beauty and personal care industries, it can be especially difficult to pick out the small, sustainable brands from the greenwashing giants. Doing some research into your favorite brands or new ones you’re thinking about trying is a good way to figure out where your money is going. Is it going into the hands of small business owners and their partners? Or is it going into the already deep pockets of corporate CEOs?
Is It Part Of A Whole Line Of Truly Sustainable Products, Or Is It Just Part Of A One-off Initiative Meant To Raise “Brand Awareness” Without Actually Making A Meaningful Impact?
Some brands rely solely on marketing campaigns to attract sustainably minded customers without making an effort to green their products in even the smallest ways. An obvious example of this would be an Earth Day t-shirt that proclaims “save the earth!” on it, but is made out of conventional cotton and dyed with synthetic dyes in a factory that pollutes the planet and exploits its workers.
Greenwashing is confusing and it comes in many forms, but if you know where to look and how to ask the right questions, you can usually suss it out.
The Meow Meow Tweet blog is a collaborative thought project between the founders of Meow Meow Tweet and our editorial team. This post was written by Faye Lesser.