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Greenwashing: How Consumer’s Environmental Efforts are Turned to Profits

When shopping for dish soap or cleaning supplies, do you feel yourself reaching for the packaging that shares its eco-friendly practices or has majestic scenery on it? Do you continue to place it in your shopping cart despite it costing a few dollars extra? If so, you are not too different from 66% of global consumers that indicated they are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products, according to a 2015 Nielsen poll. You are also more likely to fall prey to corporate lies.

With the substantial rise in consumer demand for greener products, companies are spending countless sums to promote the “greenness” of their product without necessarily making good on their claims. This practice is known as greenwashing. A shocking study conducted by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing found that 98% of green-labeled products sold in 2009 were greenwashed, meaning the majority of green products on the market failed to achieve their eco-friendly claims.

The term “greenwashing” was originally conceived in the 1980s to describe the farfetched environmental claims various companies were making, and not surprisingly, corporate greenwashing has continued under many different guises today. After inspecting thousands of products, TerraChoice categorized marketing claims into the “seven sins of greenwashing”: hidden trade-offs, lack of proof, vagueness, irrelevance, being the lesser of two evils, fibbing and using false labels.  Original photo by Madeleine Bokan / Original Illustration for Her Campus Media The strategies work by either neglecting information or using it to form misleading claims. The hidden trade-offs strategy, for example, allows companies to sell products as environmentally-friendly through advertising a positive aspect of it, all the while neglecting its overall negative impact. For instance, Nestle is being criticized for its Nespresso coffee pods recycling program because it has led to only a minimal decline in waste production, and Nestle uses an energy-intensive aluminum material for its single-use pods.

Additionally, lack of proof is when a company fails to provide third-party validation or easily attainable evidence for a claim, such as labeling a washing machine as energy-efficient without proof. Another strategy is fibbing, where companies turn to lies to promote their environmental image. The Malaysia Palm Oil Council claimed “Its trees give life and help our planet breathe, and give home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna.” Strangely enough, this is difficult to achieve when palm oil plantations are linked to deforestation, species extinctions and other detrimental consequences.

Companies are able to employ these dishonest marketing strategies because there is little stopping them. The Federal Trade Commission, created to protect consumers from deceptive advertisements, released the “Green Guides” in 1992. The Guides provide guidance on proper eco-labeling, but the standards are completely voluntary. The only legislation legally able to determine whether a marketing practice is misleading is the Federal Trade Commission Act. However, the most common result of finding a business guilty of greenwashing is issuing a consent order where the company must agree to discontinue their current marketing strategy. This is merely a slap on the wrist for the company because they face no charges and are not forced to publicly admit their actions.

Through the lax federal regulations, companies are able to capitalize off of something as genuine as our hope for a better future. Not only is greenwashing an infringement on marketing ethics, it is an environmental health problem that needs to end. From Mazda’s use of the Lorax character to endorse one of its models as eco-friendly to Shell claiming its oil projects in Canada are “sustainable” with no evidence, corporations are targeting environmentally-conscious consumers everywhere; therefore, this is where our power lies. Canola Oil Alex Frank / Spoon While calling our elected officials’ offices and other forms of political efforts are crucial for creating change, as consumers, we have a more effective ace up our sleeves: voting with our dollars. It is essential for us to look past faux-branding, self-proclaimed labels and unverifiable claims, and put our money towards authentically green products. In fact, navigating eco-labeled products has never been easier with the plethora of websites and other online resources available today. 

In addition, spreading the word about greenwashing is essential for bringing an end to deceptive business practices. Many consumers are not aware of the marketing strategies that go unchecked by any third-party or federal agency, so informing family members, friends and even fellow shoppers is vital for raising awareness about the impact we have with our purchases. If businesses want to reap the benefits of rapidly growing demand for greener products, every aspect of their product must reflect honest and verifiable eco-friendly business practices.