Ever wondered whether the things you buy are really that eco-friendly? Jill Ettinger explains what greenwashing is and how we can avoid it
It’s nice to imagine us all living in sync – like in that scene from Snow White, where all the animals hover around her like one big, happy ecosystem. Or, perhaps you recall that Coca-Cola commercial from the 1970s, where fans of the soft drink all sing on a mountain top about living in perfect harmony.
Those images conjure up a feeling – a sense of something greater than ourselves, but also deeply tied to our self image. We want to do better, don’t we? We recycle, drive electric cars, wear out our jumpers and running shoes until they’re barely more than bits of thread and rubber. Corporations know this, of course. They make every effort to keep us feeling like we’re making the best possible choices when we buy their products. Some even outright lie, bending the truth to their gain while we ignorantly play right into their hands and their bank accounts.
What is greenwashing?
This practice of inflating environmental or sustainable claims is often called greenwashing, or ‘the green sheen’. So how do we spot it? The truth is, it’s not that easy. Greenwashing can often look like a simple label change – the ubiquitous eco leaf, and green or earth-toned colours to trick our brains into the assumption that the product is environmentally friendly when it may be anything but. It can be a label that touts one possible benefit, like energy saving, while ignoring the resource-intensive practices used in production.
Food is one area that sees a lot of greenwashing – think ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-range’ on egg labels, or those happy rolling hills on dairy product labels. These scenarios are few and far between, and the reality of animal products is the complete opposite of ‘green’. Animals are forced to live in dark, unsanitary sheds with thousands of other animals, all the while contributing to our greenhouse gas problem en masse.
Kraft Heinz Foods did something similar with its Sensible Solution labelling, aimed at marketing healthier food options for families. It used a green label highlighting one component of otherwise unhealthy foods (sugary cereals, processed cheese, jelly, etc). This kind of labelling leads shoppers to think the products aren’t just healthy, but they’re sustainable, too.
It’s been done in the auto industry, fashion, even hotels that promise they’ll only wash your towels if you leave them on the floor. One of the biggest offenders, though, is Big Oil. Royal Dutch Shell is now facing a lawsuit over its bait-and-switch on sustainability. While it made public pledges to reduce emissions, it increased its fossil fuel sourcing behind the scenes. This type of practice is all too common.
How do we avoid it?
The short answer? You can’t. At least, not entirely. It’s PR noise in the background of our lives, whether we’re traveling, shopping or powering our homes. The modern world is rife with greenwashing because of one very important reason: people want sustainable options. That motivation isn’t anything to slough off – we need to continue to support the brands and industries that are trying to do better for people, the planet, and animals. But the noise is just that: noise.
What we can do as consumers is our homework. If you’re groaning just like you did in high school when your teacher assigned you an essay to do over the holiday break, consider the value that homework ultimately delivered. The more we know, the better equipped we are to make true and lasting change.
Being a responsible consumer means acquainting ourselves with the market. As we become more familiar with the corporations and their practices, it’s easier to spot greenwashing. Don’t assume that smaller companies are exempt, either. In fact, smaller companies can often be big offenders, positioning themselves as more eco-friendly than their larger competitors in order to gain an advantage in the market. And practices at smaller companies can be more difficult to verify, too.
Do your research
There are a number of resources, like Consumer Reports, that rate and review products and brand claims. A number of nonprofit organisations are also actively working to expose greenwashing and highlight the companies that are doing good.
When researching brands, look for those that incorporate holistic, ethical, or sustainable practices across their entire company. This means how they treat employees as much as where they source their palm oil from. Brands that are committed to the greater good are committed in every possible way.
An honest brand will also own up to its shortcomings, and make efforts to repair damage done. This is harder to do when the company is a global giant. That’s a signal that their sustainability claims may not be entirely truthful.
Look for real efforts, too. Anyone can change a label colour and put a leaf on it. But what type of corporate initiatives have they launched? Have they made donations to causes? This information can be easy to find, often on the company’s own website.
Follow these brands on social media, and follow the non-profits, too. This can help you stay up to date with any campaigns being run against them, and keep track of their overall brand voice and messaging. If sustainability is only a small part of that, chances are it’s only a small part of the company’s focus, too.
The more we call brands out, the closer we get to that harmonious Walt Disney-esque image. Sustainability doesn’t have to be fairytale. Because we’re the ones writing the story.
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