What is Greenwashing? Issues to Look Out For
Greenwashing’ is the attempt to gloss over less sustainable practices, and focus only on the areas of success in sustainability. For those of us trying to navigate a minefield of issues and separate out truly sustainable products, services and companies, it can make making the right choices much more challenging.
Unfortunately, especially since so many more people became aware of our climate crisis and passionate about our environment, greenwashing is rife. Companies, organisations – even governments – are guilty of ‘burying the lead’, selectively sharing their sustainability progress, and making customers, clients or voters think their ‘green’ credentials are better than they actually are.
Greenwashing is not new. The term was coined way back in 1986. But as consumers awaken and realise the importance of going greener, it is becoming ever more prevalent. Individuals have to be a lot more careful, and delve a little deeper, to make sure they have not just part of the picture, but the whole truth.
Here are some issues to look out for when on the alert for greenwashing:
A Lack of Transparency
A major factor in greenwashing is a lack of transparency. If you find it difficult to find out details of a company’s sustainability policy, supply chains or methodologies, it is natural to suspect something is up. We have a right to demand full transparency from the companies and authorities we deal with. Where full transparency is lacking, this can be a sign that greenwashing is taking place.
Being aware of the common greenwashing practices, and delving deeper before we make any decisions as individuals is the first stage to undermining the effectiveness of this strategy and holding offenders to account.
A Minimal Proportion of Sustainable Production or Action
A company, organisation or authority may be doing untold harm through the majority of its activities, but hold up an example of a small green initiative as an example to sustainability-minded consumers, customers or voters. Make sure you understand how most of its money, and what is mostly engages in, rather than falling for the advertising and campaign media they put out.
Be on the lookout also, for umbrella companies, with one sustainable branch which is just one small part of a wider network of companies which are contributing to our climate crisis, degrading the environment, or doing harm to human society.
Companies will often wave their hands in air, saying ‘look over here’. But you need to pay attention to the ‘man behind the curtain’.
In retail and brands, companies talk about one or a few products of theirs that are sustainable but prefer not to go into much details about products/brands that mislead or misguide consumers. You cannot trust this type of brand/company, as being Ethical & Sustainable is a value they need to believe truly in and live as well not just cherry pick here and there.
Dodgy Offsetting – Not a Replacement for Emissions Reduction
Carbon neutrality claims and net zero targets are rife. But it is important to understand whether these claims and targets are based on actual emissions reductions, or on dodgy carbon offset or carbon trading. Carbon offsetting is not always providing the benefits it claims to be.
Where offsets are not verifiable, additional, leakage-free, permanent and unique (not double-counted) they should be avoided. And offsetting can never, in spite of claims, be a replacement for emissions reduction. We need to take care not to paper over the problem, but simply take whatever steps we can to reduce emissions and keep fossil fuels in the ground.
Internal Definitions and Labelling, Questionable Claims
One important thing to remember when it comes to greenwashing is that a company’s own definition of ‘sustainable’ might not be the same as your own. Many ‘eco’ or ‘green’ claims on marketing and labels are not certified by any external body. Instead, they may be arbitrary and subjective labels applied by the authority, business or organisation themselves.
Some ‘eco’ and ‘ethical’ terms like ‘vegan’, for example, can also mask other environmental or ethical issues. Careful research is required to delve into all the various costs of a particular product or service.
This is why it is important to do your research, and to seek out external labelling and verification schemes that you can trust – such as Oekotex, Soil Association organic, Global Organic Standard etc…Make sure you understand what areas are covered, and not covered, by each label or certification. And make your own ethical judgements based on the facts.
In the field of sustainability, there are many words that can be applied or misapplied. Language can be used in extremely misleading ways. One common example is the word ‘natural’, which can lull consumers into a false sense of comfort. But just because something is ‘natural’ or has ‘all natural ingredients’ that does not necessarily mean that it is an eco-friendly or sustainable choice. Neither is an all natural product necessarily a healthy one.
Terms like ‘biodegradable’ can also be used in greenwashing. Just because something is biodegradable (breaks down in natural conditions), that does not necessarily mean that it breaks down into harmless and natural constituent parts. Even the term ‘compostable’ does not necessarily mean that you really can compost it at home. Some bioplastics will only compost under specific conditions not met in a typical home composting system. When looking for full home compostable materials, be on the lookout for misleading language of this sort.
Money Trails – Hidden Harm
Finally, even when something is perceived as sustainable, and appears to be doing the right thing for people and planet, there can still be hidden harm. One key thing to remember when trying to determine whether things really are as good as they appear is that you need to follow the money.
Through investment, funding, or money trails, companies or organisations may be propping up harmful industries – they may not, for example, be fully divested from fossil fuel. So your green purchases may inadvertently contribute to maintaining the harmful status quo. Following the money may lead you to discover that a particular company or organisation is, in the bigger picture, doing more harm than good.
WHAT CAN WE DO AS CONSUMERS?
As consumers, we can stop this by using due diligence and researching a bit more about the products and the brand rather than going for impulse buy. Know the people behind the brand- are they here to cash on public sentiments or working sincerely to make a difference.
It is our money and we can either reward or punish a brand by choosing where to spend this money.
We have the power to change the world and all it needs is a bit of effort from our side to find our more.