You may have come across the term greenwashing in the media recently. Conversations about sustainability and the environment are growing in size and power, and companies are being pushed by their customers to enact positive change. But in some cases, these changes can be only surface-deep.
Greenwashing is when companies appear environmentally friendly but are not. In many cases, companies spend more on green marketing and PR than enacting positive environmental change throughout their company. This is a deliberately misleading practice that affects how consumers perceive companies and their services.
Although the conversation around greenwashing has exploded in recent years, greenwashing has been around for decades. The term was coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld who critiqued the ‘save the towel’ movement in hotels.
Since then, greenwashing has persisted all over the world. Car companies, energy companies, and clothes manufacturers have all participated in greenwashing campaigns, contributing to pollution as consumers shift to shopping more sustainably.
Garnier’s One Green Step report revealed that 73% of UK consumers wanted to be more sustainable in 2021. However, greenwashing campaigns can make it difficult to make eco-friendly choices.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Several indicators can reveal if a campaign or company is greenwashing their practices. These include:
- No proof – Claiming something that cannot be easily verified.
- Vagueness – Relying on vague terms or labels that are poorly defined.
- False labels – Giving the impression of a third-party endorsement that may not exist.
- Lying – Blatantly lying to consumers.
- The lesser of two evils – Claiming that their product or service is better than others within their industry in a bid to detract from the environmental impact of that industry.
- Jargon – Using confusing language that consumers may not understand to appear green.
- Images – Using pictures or graphics that imply that the company is environmentally friendly, such as an aeroplane flying over green fields.
In the age of the internet, greenwashing is becoming increasingly easier to spot. Claims can be upheld or debunked within a few minutes on Google, and a lack of transparency from companies is an instant red flag.
Something else to be aware of is that even though a product may be recycled or biodegradable, that does not mean that it is a good thing. Recycled products, such as recycled plastic bottles, can still be damaging to the environment.
Recycled or eco-friendly ranges from large brands that are notorious polluters is also a form of greenwashing. Whilst these ranges are technically good for the environment, the brands that manufacture them are also responsible for manufacturing many other products that actively harm the environment and contribute to pollution through their factories.
For instance, Primark Cares is Primark’s sustainable range. Although the range claims to make sustainable fashion accessible to those who can’t afford expensive, ethically made items, Primark has a long history of morally questionable acts, including being linked to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013, which killed 1,134 people.
Greenwashing and Marketing
There is a reason why greenwashing has become so popular in recent years. As people shop more sustainably, many large brands have been cashing in on greenwashing campaigns.
Recently, fast-fashion giant H&M came under fire for their Conscious collection, which claims to be made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton and recycled polyester. However, research has found that the Conscious collection contained 72% of damaging materials. Meanwhile, the brand’s main line included 61% of damaging materials.
Unfortunately, consumers trust marketing and advertisements that tout products as biodegradable or eco-friendly, even if they are false. It can also be difficult for them to spot greenwashing, especially when they are unaware of what they’re looking for.
For companies who greenwash their products or services, there are serious repercussions. In 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority banned a RyanAir advert that claimed the budget airline company had ‘Europe’s lowest emissions’ after failing to provide evidence to back their claim up.
If you’re considering putting an eco-friendly spin on your marketing, take a step back and think about how you can avoid greenwashing. Ask yourself what your company or product does that is good for the environment, and consider whether you have evidence to prove this. Don’t be afraid to be open about sustainability being a struggle or a process for you and your brand – your customers will value your honesty, and you’ll build trust with them.
Regrettably, greenwashing can encourage consumers to pay a premium price for ‘sustainable’ items that are anything but. However, greenwashed products are perceived negatively over environmentally friendly products, and green marketing is only truly effective when a company is engaged in improving its environmental impact.
Although greenwashing is a destructive marketing trend, it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Large companies, such as fast-fashion chains and airlines that consistently damage the environment, are using greenwashing in an attempt to appeal to conscious consumers as they try and change their spending habits to create a more eco-friendly future.
The key to combating this trend is to be aware of it. Take note of what companies are claiming, and see if it can be verified. If it’s vague, woolly, or full of jargon that you can barely get through, beware – greenwashing is near.