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Is it Actually Good for the Planet Or Is It Just Greenwashing?

A Guide: How to Tell Whether Sustainability is Being Used as Marketing or Is Legitimate

By Olivia L. DobbsPublished about a month ago 9 min read
Is it Actually Good for the Planet Or Is It Just Greenwashing?
Photo by Anna Oliinyk on Unsplash

Being a modern consumer is a nightmare. It often feels like every purchase is a moral choice where you’re forced to choose between which ethical nightmare you’re willing to put your money towards. Thankfully, there’s been quite the movement recently in the world of products, with more and more companies transitioning towards better ingredients and more ethical, Earth-friendly practices.

Unfortunately, not all of these green rebrands we’re now seeing are truly making a difference. It’s trendy in the world of marketing to make companies look ethical and good for the planet, but that doesn’t mean that all these companies are making equally positive changes to help the Earth. Yes, some brands really are putting in the effort to decrease their carbon footprint but some others are only hopping on the bandwagon in hopes of getting more sales from you — not great.

It’s easy to fall for some of the convincing language from these companies — I know I’ve certainly fallen for the same nonsense. In previous blogs, I have even praised the efforts of companies that were engaging in greenwashing! It can be difficult to tell the difference between genuine good-for-the-earth practices and quick write-offs. There’s a way to positively spin anything and everything. If you aren’t looking out for that sort of spin in the products you purchase, you may mistakenly purchase a product that makes you feel like you’re making a difference, all the while the company has made little to no positive changes to accomplish the difference you’re hoping for.

Greenwashing 101: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Greenwashing is one of the last terms a business should want to be labeled with. It’s a term that consumers use to point out companies with misleading representations of eco-friendliness, and those that get labeled with the term can range from corps with lazy campaign efforts to companies telling outright lies — both of which are pretty damning. Yet, a ton of companies are getting away with these sorts of messages because they can be pretty hard to detect.

The term was first used in the 1980s by an environmentalist who, upon investigating the self-proclaimed eco-friendly practices of a hotel in New York, found that, despite notices encouraging consumers to help the environment, the hotel failed to make any internal changes to back up that message of environmentalism. Since the coining of this term, it has steadily risen in popularity, becoming particularly widespread within the ‘deinfluencing’ and ‘anticonsumerism’ movements.

At this point, greenwashing is rampant, from beauty products, to food, and from software to theme parks. Companies are aware that consumers want to make choices that feel good for the planet so when there’s a chance any aspect of their business that could be highlighted as ‘good’, they’ll press it hard. When a consumer feels less guilty about a purchase, they’re more likely to consume it and repeatedly consume it. Since it’s in style in the business world to be ‘good for the planet’, all manner of companies, trustworthy and not, are making the transition to appear like the Earth-happy choice on the shelf (or on the website).

Why Greenwashing is a HUGE Problem

You don’t need me to tell you that our planet is in trouble. If you’re here reading this article, you’re likely already pretty aware of how much green initiatives matter in this day and age. Greenwashing, intentionally done or not, counteracts that effort, effectively fooling people who care enough to attempt to make a difference, costing them, oftentimes, a premium to make no real impact. In the economic state we’re in, this sort of practice isn’t only dangerous for environmental health, but it also can harm individuals directly, effectively swindling them out of extra money to make a fake difference — it’s not a good look for a company.

So, then, why are so many companies actively greenwashing their products and brands? Of course, there are the bad actors who only care to make more money, but that isn’t representative of all companies and likely isn’t even representative of most. For many, greenwashing can be a quick band-aid fix for recovering a not-so-good reputation, especially when PR is damaged via some disastrous company event. Other times, the people who care enough to take environmental initiatives in companies aren’t given enough resources, don’t have enough authority, or, even, are well-intentioned but do not have enough knowledge about the cause they want to make a difference in.

With no single one-root cause to such a complex issue, there’s only one solution to the problem: collective knowledge. The better we are at detecting greenwashing, the better we’ll be able to avoid it, voting with our purchases towards better alternatives to greenwashing services and products. When we all become better at greenwashing detection, we’ll be able to pressure companies into making more of a difference (or less of a carbon footprint) to win us over.

How to Become A Greenwashing Sleuth

There’s more than one way you can identify an instance of greenwashing in the wild, as there are a wide variety of ways in which product companies may attempt to make themselves look greener. It can take a good bit of label reading — and it can still be easy to be fooled. To decrease the amount of moments you’re fooled by greenwashing, look for these red flags:

Red Flag #1 — Vague, Flowery Messaging

One of the most common red flags is the use of vague language. Think of cleaning supplies that say “natural ingredients” with a little leaf or happy duckling, without any additional clarification as to what those ingredients are. When a company simply says, “natural” or “eco-friendly” or some other green buzzword without any explanation as to why their product is good for the planet, it’s likely that they’re simply trying to jump on the green bandwagon. Sometimes, this sort of vague eco-friendliness will be displayed not with buzzwords, but with green colors, leaves, happy animals, or lovely little images of Earth looking clean and floral.

Red Flag #2: Only Showing Half of the Data

Some companies may even go a step further than ‘eco-friendly’- remaining vague but adding blurbs like “15% less plastic”. Decreasing plastic is, of course, an improvement, but when a company doesn’t say what it’s 15% less than, it’s not worth much. Is it 15% less plastic than a competitor? Is it 15% less plastic than its last product design? Is it 15% less plastic than the contents of a landfill? If an Earth-friendly blurb has no identifiable clarifications, clear data, or studies and evidence attached, it isn’t worth its salt.

Red Flag #3: Little Details Provided Without a Big Picture

Another red flag to look out for is a lack of self-awareness. A good green company will showcase its flaws along with its benefits. By showcasing their entire impact, good and bad, they’re essentially indicating how they intend to make improvements. When a company does the opposite, only highlighting a very select portion of data, or worse, painting themselves as a perfectly non-harmful solution, it could very well be a sign that they’re only greenwashing for the clout. Generally speaking, the more information, the more trustworthy a company really is.

Red Flag #4: Not Receptive to Feedback

Finally, check into the history of a company. Are they resistant to offering comments about their eco-friendly practices? Do they shy away from investigations and public scrutiny? Have they failed to go on the record with previous supply chain and environmental impact? All of these could be red flags. A company that truly cares about aiding the environment won’t shy away from correcting its mistakes and listening to its consumers.

How You Can Tell When a Green Company is Actually Green.

As much as there are red flags to identify greenwashing, there are also tons of ways to identify green flags of businesses and their products.

Green Flag #1: A Willingness to Learn and Grow

Look into how a business is staying accountable with its approach to sustainability. Are they aware of the missteps they’ve taken in their journey? Do they talk about their shortcomings and how they intend to improve them? This sort of attitude from a company can be a good indicator that they’re the real deal, and truly seek to make a difference in the consumer landscape. A good green corporation will provide transparent information about their supply, their environmental impact, and the third parties that verify their achievements in sustainability.

Green Flag #2: Multiple Instances of Green Initiatives

You can also dive into company history to see what their long-term impact has been on the environment. A green flag green company will show a lengthy paper trail of sustainability integration into their general strategy, and not just an instance or two of PR-worthy initiatives. Look into what a company has done to research (or at least investigate) sustainable practices, and how they have or have not implemented them into their pipeline. A company that sets a long-term sustainability goal and then actually manages to meet it without delaying the due date is a huge green flag that the company and its leadership give a damn about sustainability.

Green Flag #3: Holistic Sustainability (Not a Sustainable Option)

Of course, you can also take a look at the whole company at once, and whether or not their approach to sustainability is holistic. If every product being offered offers the same sustainable benefits (i.e. compostable packaging), or the company donates to a good cause with all of its products, or simply seems to have a history of being receptive to the communities it serves, these could all be indicators that the sustainable practices are the real deal, and not just a move to win sustainability brownie points.

Green Flag #4: Certified Sustainability

Another pretty fool-proof green flag that a product is good for the planet is its certifications. There are tons of product seals and certifications which are well-regulated and, when a company manages to apply and attain one, they’re much more likely a real-deal green business. Look for companies with USDA organic certification, the Green Seal, Fair Trade Certification, and Rainforest Alliance Certification, these are usually trustworthy.

If you’re interested in a more comprehensive list of valid certifications (there are a ton), definitely check out the Library of Congress’ list, which links to a ton of amazing resources for this. Familiarizing yourself with these can make the whole process way easier!

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If you’re looking for a list of quick identifiers, or don’t have time to pull out your phone and read an entire website while at the grocery store, this is my current go-to list of questions when I’m searching for a sustainable product. Ask yourself these questions when shopping for a product.

  • What’s the packaging made of?
  • Is it fully recyclable?
  • Is it made entirely of post-consumer plastic?
  • Is it compostable?
  • Do the sustainability claims have data to back them up or, at least, a source where you can find data to support the claims?
  • Is the company free from environmental controversy?
  • Is this ‘sustainable product’ from a sustainable company, or is it from a large company masquerading as a small sustainable business?

If none of the answers to these questions yield any alarm bells about the sustainability of a product, you likely have a decent product on your hands.

There are an incredible amount of companies, services, and products in every category, competing for our attention and resources. With technology leading to more and more globalization, we have access to more options than ever. Despite the burden of choice that may be overwhelming at times, this level of competition makes for an excellent consumer opportunity: we can support companies that are in line with our ideals, and who are engaging in ethical, planet-healthy business practices. All we have to do is find those companies.

Thankfully, we have the internet, which is helpful for more than only seeing the latest memes and photos of everyone’s pets. For every company out there, there are tons of reviews in every format, covering the ins and outs of company practices and controversy. It’s also rather handy for finding green certifications, lists of brands, and influencers who share their own investigations into the green practices of companies. Use the internet to your advantage, it can make an incredible difference in your impact by which brands you choose to put your money into.

P.S. Hey businesses! Are you interested in gaining the monetary benefits of being a green company? Consider this: become a truly green company. ❤

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Crossposted from Medium :)

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About the Creator

Olivia L. Dobbs

Science Enthusiast, Naturalist, Dreamer, Nerd.

I crosspost my Medium articles here :)

You can find my main account on Medium: https://medium.com/@oliviadobbs13

Check out my science! -> bit.ly/DobbsEtAl

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    Olivia L. DobbsWritten by Olivia L. Dobbs

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