Since 2009, the number of organizations claiming to be sustainable has increased to over 73%.
Yet is this green glory something to celebrate or something to question with caution?
More than 95% of companies are guilty of greenwash.
Greenwashing refers to any misleading claim regarding an organization’s environmental efforts or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Greenwash is a marketing tactic. A tactic used to deceive the moral consumer, like you and me, for corporate gain.
Greenwash as a marketing tactic, is wrong.
In this article, you’ll learn exactly what greenwashing is, why it is used, and how, as consumers, you can spot corporate greenwash to stop it.
Paint strippers at the ready, let’s scrap away the green facade!
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is used as a marketing tactic, to deceive a consumer into buying what they believe is a more sustainable product/service, when the reality does not match the claims made.
The term was first coined in 1986 by American environmentalist Jay Westerveld. During his visit to the Beachcomber Island Resort, Westerveld noticed the resort was sprawled with signs that stated:
“Help us save the environment, please re-use the towels”
A statement that on the surface seems both innocent and commendable.
Save the environment — yes, please! Who wouldn’t want to support an organization with such philanthropic values?
It takes further analysis to gain a better understanding of the resort’s actual values.
As the resort promoted towel reuse, the grounds expanded into the surrounding fragile coral habitats, ravaging these endangered systems.
You can see how the claim — “help us save the environment” — was not a true reflection of the organization’s actual focus — which was expansion and growth at the expense of the environment.
This is greenwash.
Using greenwash as a marketing strategy
Because, in a Millennial’s lifetime, we have witnessed substantial environmental destruction. Such as:
- Rising seas
- Ocean acidification
- Melting glaciers
- Spreading droughts
- Dwindling access to freshwater
- Increased frequency of heatwaves
- Worsening and more frequent natural disasters.
- Substantial biodiversity loss
A quick Google search is enough to open anybody’s eyes to the horrors of man-made environmental change.
Witnessing the suffering of our home planet means one does not put a price on sustainable alternatives.
Environmental guilt means I would happily pay extra for a brand that was truthful and diligent in its activities, with environmental impacts at the forefront of the company’s mission and values. Greenwash makes this difficult though, for someone like you and me who care.
Greenwash and its compounding effects
From an ethical standpoint, it’s easy to see how wrong greenwash is. After all, no one wants to be deceived.
On top of this — despite being an attractive marketing tactic — greenwash gains are often short-term, with greenwashing putting businesses at risk of:
- Consumer and employee exposure to toxic, dangerous, and environmentally damaging products.
- Legal conviction with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforcing Green Guides to address and convict marketing tactics defined as greenwash.
- A study from 1990 to 2012 found sustainable firms dramatically outperformed unsustainable firms. Promoting a brand as sustainable without making the investments necessary is only harmful long term.
- A tarnished reputation and negative brand image overall, which no business wants.
Coming back to you, what can you do to prevent greenwash?
How to spot greenwash to stop it
As consumers, we want to know exactly what we are buying so we can avoid deception.
Below are 3 steps to consider when making any purchase based on an organization’s sustainability claims:
- Read the small print. Surface-level statements — like “re-use the towel” and “save the environment” — should not be accepted at face value. Critically analyze every statement. Ask questions such as “how do these claims relate to the bigger picture?” “How sustainable are the core business practices?” “Does the organization acknowledge how they can improve and make their business operations more sustainable?” “Do you think the organization is doing as much as they can to be sustainable?”
- Be aware (and wary) of branding. Earth-associated colors such as greens, browns, and blues are a common deceitful trick. Although these are considered natural colors, they give a false impression that the product used is green.
- Find proof. To be sustainable, an organization has to work hard to change its operations, investing both time and money. Such investments do pay off, but if a company’s focus is on creating sustainable business practices, the organization will flaunt that. Look for proof via quality management certifications, such as ISO 14000 certification and ISO 9001.
We can all be agents and redesign sustainable outcomes for our world. We can change our consumer habits and pressure organizations to create true post-disposable, sustainable products that have a circular design.
Understanding greenwash and knowing how to spot it is the first step to greenwash prevention. If you think a product or service is guilty of greenwash, then don’t be a customer. Ask for further information and call the business out.
Separate the con-panies from the companies for honest communication
Greenwash creates a distrusting environment. To boot, greenwash is massively harmful to our natural world by negating consumer efforts to live more sustainably.
The shifty nature of greenwash puts an organization at risk of:
- Exposing employees and consumers to toxicities.
- Legal conviction.
- Poor long-term performance.
- A tarnished brand reputation.
All in all, as consumers, it is important to spot greenwash and do our part in stopping it.
And as employees and business leaders, protocols, standard operating procedures, and practices must be followed to communicate sustainability efforts openly and honestly. At the end of the day, it’s not just our planet that’s being harmed, it’s society, you, and me.
I am a Content Writer at Process Street. I graduated in Biology, specializing in Environmental Science at Imperial College London. During my degree, I developed an enthusiasm for writing to communicate environmental issues. I continued my studies at Imperial College’s Business School, and with this, my writing progressed looking at sustainability in a business sense. When I am not writing I enjoy being in the mountains, running, and rock climbing. Follow me at @JaneCourtnell.