Definition of greenwashing
: expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities
Buying just about anything today requires exhaustive research. What is it made of? Who made it? How is it packaged? How do I dispose of it at the end of its useful life?
Greenwashing can make purchasing decisions even more confusing. Dubious claims, eco-imagery and marketing lingo all add a veneer of sustainability to products that have been designed to convince us that they help the environment, rather than designed to actually help the environment.
Companies guilty of greenwashing have tapped into our desire to do the right thing in the hopes of tapping into a lucrative market. In 2019, NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business found that 50 percent of the sales growth in consumer packaged goods between 2013 and 2018 came from products marketed as sustainable. Consumer packaged goods include packaged food, beverages, personal care products and other goods that we buy over and over.
So how can you detect and avoid falling for greenwashing claims? The following clues will help.
1. The “eco” version enables business as usual
In 2018, Starbucks announced it would eliminate plastic straws in its beverages globally by 2020. It did so by changing its lid to a sippy cup style lid. Made of thicker plastic, the new lid weighs more than the plastic lid and straw it replaced. Starbucks has pointed out that the new lid can be recycled. Given our abysmal 9 percent recycling rate in the US, most of the new lids in America will go to landfill or incinerators along with their matching cups.
The new lids make Starbucks customers feel as though the company has done something for the environment. But even if the sippy cup lid did weigh less than the old lid-straw combo, eliminating plastic straws does not go far enough to reduce waste. Straws are the symptom. Throwaway culture is the disease. We must treat the disease.
2. One green feature and a bunch of not-so-green ones
Meal kit companies like to boast about all the food waste they reduce. And they probably do reduce food waste. Meal assembly kits contain each single ingredient in just the amount you need for your dish—and then wrap each ingredient in single-use plastic, pack everything in cardboard boxes along with freezer bricks filled with chemical goo that you throw out and cannot recycle, not that recycling is the answer, reduction is. The boxes, shipped all over the place, require more delivery trucks on the road, which increases traffic congestion and air pollution.
We’re so addicted to online shopping that by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum, the number of delivery vehicles on the road will increase by 36 percent in major cities worldwide, increasing delivery-related emissions by 30 percent and torturing workers with a 21 percent longer commute.
But we’re reducing food waste.
3. False dilemma
You can both reduce your food waste and feed yourself without buying an overpackaged meal kit. Go to this building called a grocery store. Pick out some food. Bring it home and cook it. Yes, meal kits are more convenient. But convenience will kill us all. So there is that.
Big Oil, surprise surprise, uses a similar false dilemma. Because demand for fuel will continue to decrease over the coming decades, oil companies want to do something with all of their oil and gas, so they have planned to build more plastic manufacturing plants (plastic comes from fossil fuel).
This blog post for Exxon Mobil explains how plastic packaging prevents food waste. Regarding our high level of food waste—worldwide, we waste a third of what we grow—the author writes, “That’s staggering and depressing on many levels.” How can anyone working for Exxon, a company hell bent on committing ecocide, find anything depressing? Or staggering?
We don’t have to choose either food waste or plastic waste. We can have our plastic-free cake and eat it too.
4. Nonsensical claims
Clean coal is not a thing. Coal burns. It releases emissions. The planet heats.
5. A polluter partnering with a green non-profit
Partnering with a non-profit enables corporations to continue to pollute the planet rather than make the large-scale changes necessary to clean up their acts.
Bank of America, which poured $106.69 billion into fossil fuel investments between 2016 and 2018, partners with World Wild Fund for Nature, or WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund). While the bank invests in fossil fuel companies that decimate the planet and its wildlife, the money it raises for wildlife applies a green sheen to the company’s operations.
Coca-Cola, the top plastic polluter according to Break Free From Plastic’s global audit, also partners with WWF. At the World Economic Forum earlier this month at Davos, Coca-Cola’s head of sustainability, Bea Perez, said that the company will not stop producing plastic bottles because “consumers want them.” (Please sign this petition from Plastic Pollution Coalition and tell Coca-Cola that we don’t want its bottles polluting our planet.)
Does anyone honestly believe that drinking a Coke will help a polar bear?
6. Images of cute animals
We all want to save the pandas and polar bears and, even more so after Australia’s historic bushfires, koalas and kangaroos. Many marketers slap meaningless images of cute critters on their products as shorthand for environmentally friendly. You’ll also often see images of green leaves all over packages to signal the supposed virtue of the package’s contents.
Watch out for vague marketing language and terms such as:
- Environmentally friendly
- Natural (means nothing)
- Pure (ditto)
- Save the Earth!
- Sustainable (how exactly?)
- Biodegradable (this means the product breaks down into smaller pieces, but does not necessarily disappear)
How can we avoid greenwashing?
Buy less stuff
Leaving products in the virtual shopping cart is the easiest way to avoid greenwashing. The study I referenced at the beginning of this post looked at consumer packaged goods. I survive without most of these. A lot of consumer products fulfill manufactured needs, not actual needs. (For more, read 21 consumer products you can likely live without.)
I don’t mean to suggest we never buy anything. We all need to buy things. And some companies are honest. But before asking “Is this product greenwashed?” we might ask ourselves “Do I need this?” Because even if the organically grown, water-saving hemp woven into the naturally dyed sweater in question has a lower footprint than, say, a typical cotton sweater, you may not need the sweater.
About that hemp. Many hemp growers rely on plastic to keep weeds down. This unrecyclable plastic usually goes into landfills and sometimes the hemp farmers burn it illegally.
‘Just that sheet mulch is 100 to 200 pounds of plastic per acre, and when you pull up that plastic at the end of the year, there’s two to 10 times that weight in soil clinging to the plastic,’ Jones said. ‘I don’t know of any recycling options; it’s a global recycling problem.’Mail Tribune, “Cash Crop,” July 9th, 2019.
Go with your gut
If you think a claim sounds suspect, then pay attention to that feeling. We can usually sense dubious claims but we often want to believe them. If only buying the lotion with the leaf and koala graphics plastered all over it could fix the world!
Do your research and ask questions
Poke around the company website and try to learn more about the product. Email the company and ask questions. What do claims such as “made from renewable resources” or “manufactured with zero emissions” or “carbon-neutral” actually mean?
While no product is perfectly green—everything has a carbon footprint—we can avoid the greenwashing.