As consumers become more and more aware of the environmental and social impact of the products that they buy, they are increasingly choosing sustainable products over other products. 66 per cent of global consumers are willing to pay extra for green products, and in millennials, it is even 73%.

As a whole new market of sustainable products is opening up, companies are jumping at the opportunity to be a part of it. But while the new, more conscious consumer drives many companies to improve their products, others use the new market to ‘greenwash’ their products.

Greenwashing occurs when a company or organisation spends more money to convince the public that they are environmentally friendly than actually implementing business practices that minimise their environmental impact. By using this technique, organisations try to profit from the ever-increasing environmental and ecological movement, while drawing away attention from their adverse environmental effects.

The history of greenwashing

While it might seem that the term ‘greenwashing’ was only invented recently, it has actually been in use for a long time. It first emerged when in 1986 in an essay by Jay Westerveld. He was staying in a hotel, where he found a little card in the bathroom. On the card it said ‘Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, I will use again”. A towel on the floor means, ‘Please replace’. Thank you for helping us conserve the Earth’s vital resources.’

In his essay, Westerveld described the irony of the ‘save the towel’ movement. When hotels waste resources in so many ways, does it really matter to wash these towels or not? He suspected that, what played a bigger factor, was that corporations would save money by washing these towels less often. He then coined the term ‘greenwashing’, derived from the term ‘whitewashing’ which means covering up scandalous information through a biased presentation of facts.

However, while the term greenwashing was invented only in 1986, the concept was invented much earlier. When the ecology movement began to gather steam in the 1960s, corporations tried to profit from it. Social critic Jerry Mander then described this phenomenon as “eco-pornography”.

For example, in the mid-80s, oil company Chrevon ran the People Do Campaign television and print ads to inform the public about their environmental dedication. But meanwhile, it was violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges. And in 1991, while American chemical company DuPont made a big deal of using double-hulled tankers to guard against oil spills, it turned out that the company was the largest corporate polluter in the U.S.A. that year.

Modern greenwashing

These examples of greenwashing come from a time when the general public relied on newspapers, television and radios to get their information. Nowadays, consumers have access to much more information because of the Internet. This allows them to fact-check any claims made by organisations, and to hold them accountable when their claims do not match reality. But does this mean that greenwashing does not exist anymore? Unfortunately, no. It solely means that greenwashing has become that much more devious.

Some examples

A notorious example of modern greenwashing is “compostable” or “biodegradable” plastics. In 2017, Walmart paid 1 million dollars to settle a lawsuit accusing the retailer of selling plastics that were misleadingly labelled as environmentally friendly. Without disclaimers about how quickly these plastics will biodegrade in a landfill, these claims are misleading. After all, all plastics are biodegradable. They just take a couple of hundred years to do so.

Another, often undetected form of greenwashing is the ‘greenness’ of bottles of waters. Have you ever noticed how many plastic bottles of waters have colourful images of mountains, lakes or wildlife printed on the labels? These companies claim to be green and to care about nature, all while producing single-use plastics that end up in our oceans and in landfills, where they will stay around for hundreds of years.

While our landfills are filled with disposable diapers, this has not kept disposable diaper manufacturers from greenwashing them. Huggies’ Pure and Natural line, for example, invites costumers to discover the “ pure bliss of a diaper the includes gentle, natural materials.” But, while organic cotton is included in the outer cover, the materials used for the rest of the diaper is unspecified. And if Huggies was really concerned about its environmental impact, would it not produce reusable diapers as well?

Why greenwashing is so bad

Of course, greenwashing is unethical. It is an act of deception and lying in order to make money. But the effects of greenwashing go further than that. It muddies the waters of sustainable products, making it difficult for consumers to know which products are genuinely green and which are not.

Imagine being a conscious consumer. You want to buy sustainable and green products. So, you do the best you can to buy only products that are produced under fair circumstances and that have a minimal impact on the environment. But then, the umpteenth scandal of greenwashing breaks. Of all these products that are claiming to be sustainable, how many really are? Can you imagine feeling deceived and confused, and just giving up on consuming responsibly?

Greenwashing decreases the credibility of green products in general, and therefore it hurts companies that are genuinely increasing the sustainability of their projects. Moreover, it makes it more difficult for these companies to talk about their efforts, as this might be received with irony and distrust by consumers. All of this might hold consumers and companies back in decreasing their environmental and social impact.

How to avoid greenwashing?

To help consumers choose sustainable products, Futerra’s 2015 Selling Sustainability Report offers 10 basic signs of greenwashing.

  • Fluffy language: Word or terms with no clear meaning, e.g. “eco-friendly”.
  • Green products vs dirty company, such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory which pollutes rivers.
  • Suggestive pictures: Green images that indicate a (un-justified) green impact, e.g. flowers blooming from exhaust pipes.
  • Irrelevant claims: Emphasizing one tiny green attribute when everything else is un-green.
  • Best in class? Declaring you are slightly greener than the rest, even if the rest are pretty terrible.
  • Just not credible. “Eco-friendly” cigarettes anyone? “ Greening” a dangerous product doesn’t make it safe.
  • Gobbledygook: Jargon and information that only a scientist could check or understand.
  • Imaginary friends: A “ Label” that looks like a third-party endorsement. Except it’s made up.
  • No proof: It could be right, but where’s the evidence?
  • Out-right lying: Totally fabricated claims or data.

Want to know more about what you can do to decrease your ecological footprint? Check out this article about the Zero Waste Movement and about the UN Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World.