Walking into any retail store nowadays, odds are you will be bombarded by a storm of environmentally-charged buzzwords on all sides. Products claiming to be “all-natural,” made from “pure materials,” or “sustainably produced” line the shelves, but what does it all mean? Businesses have capitalized on the rise of the environmentally-conscious consumer by turning sustainability and environmentalism into marketing tools, making it extremely difficult for consumers to determine the actual impact of their purchase. To help navigate this confusing and ever-changing landscape, this blog post will break down how consumers can recognize greenwashing and make informed consumption decisions.
Greenwashing is prevalent because the market for sustainable products is growing at a rapid pace. In a recent study conducted by NYU’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business, researchers found that from 2013-2018, 50% of sales growth in consumer packaged goods came from products marketed as sustainable. This huge share of the market demonstrates businesses’ incentive to market their products as sustainable.Yet many of these claims are unsubstantiated and mislead well-intentioned consumers. The danger of greenwashing is thus nullifying the recent uptick in environmentally-conscious consumption, and not rewarding companies that play by the rules and are serious about combating climate change. That being said, let’s take a look at some ways consumers can identify and avoid greenwashed products.
Beware of companies that promote small sustainability measures as a means of covering up larger environmental atrocities. While these measures are independently laudable, they are dangerous when utilized in this way. A great example of this is actually the situation that led to the creation of the term “greenwashing,” as environmentalist Jay Westervelt pointed out that hotels encouraged guests to reuse towels on behalf of the environment, but did little to curb energy use on a large scale and continued to expand their infrastructure into nearby ecosystems. A similar situation can be seen in the marketing strategy of meal kit companies. These companies promote their products as a way to reduce food waste, but fail to mention that they include single-use plastic packaging and are delivered from all over the world, which arguably have much larger contributions to the climate crisis. So, when shopping for products or deciding where to stay during your next vacation, be sure to consider the big picture, as oftentimes it is easier to determine a company’s intention on a larger scale.
Unlikely Partnerships/Fake Labels
Polluting corporations partnering with green non-profits is another pristine example of corporate greenwashing, as the partnership attempts to improve the environmental image of the company while allowing it to continue polluting. For example, Shell has a whopping thirty partnerships with impact-oriented nonprofits, yet at the same time emitted 63 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020. While these partnerships are not always problematic, they become an issue when they are used as a defense mechanism or justification to continue polluting. Similarly concerning is the proliferation of products with endorsements from environmental groups that were not approved, or simply don’t exist. Companies have taken advantage of the wide variety of environmental groups that exist today and realized that consumers will rarely research the credentials of a certification. However, all it takes is a quick Google search to determine what a certain certification guarantees, and whether or not it even exists.
Unsubstantiated Claims/Vague Language
A final indicator that a product may be greenwashed is the presence of vague environmental claims that are not backed up by other information on the label or company website. Terms such as “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” and “biodegradable” often mean little on their own, so be sure to investigate further, specifically looking for how a product is deserving of one of these labels. These buzzwords don’t have a legal definition or any federal requirements for use in advertising, which renders them essentially useless in determining environmental impact. For example, another one of these undefined words, “non-toxic,” was thrown around so carelessly that the month of May in 2020 saw 5 cleaning products labeled as “non-toxic” charged with containing ingredients that are harmful to people, pets, and the environment. Overall, don’t be fooled by these misleading phrases that in actuality carry little weight; more helpful is to look into the company’s operations in order to judge whether the label is fitting.
Greenwashing from a Business Perspective
Combating greenwashing is not only up to consumers; businesses can and should also play a large role. By engaging in greenwashing practices, businesses put their reputation on the line, and risk damaging their credibility, losing profits, and harming the environment. Thus, there are plenty of incentives for businesses to stop greenwashing, especially as awareness of the issue grows and consumers become better informed.
Luckily, Ecolytics provides all the tools a business needs to be transparent with their customers and prevent greenwashing. For one, Ecolytics provides companies with a customized impact page that tracks tangible sustainability improvements over time, providing a wealth of data to prove environmental progress. Our software also helps tackle the issue of fake labels by connecting businesses to reputable sustainability certifications they qualify for, which can be displayed alongside environmental data to convey a genuine commitment to sustainability and the environment. If you are interested in learning more about what Ecolytics can do for your business, sign up for our demo today, and follow us on our social media platforms linked below!