Greenwashing: What It Is & How to Spot It

Greenwashing is a marketing practice used by businesses to seem environmentally friendly when they actually aren’t. This spreading of disinformation has become increasingly popular as people are more concerned about living a so-called clean lifestyle. Companies will falsely label their products as “organic” “clean” or “all-natural” to lure customers in. This practice is apparent across various industries — from beauty, cleaning, gas and food.

Greenwashing has actually been in practice for decades. In the 1980s, Chevron released a series of television ads under their “People Do” campaign to proclaim their environmental dedication. But behind the scenes, they were violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and were dumping thousands of pounds of pollutants into Santa Monica Bay.

Then, in 1991, the chemical company DuPont had ads showcasing happy marine animals to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” However, the company was the largest corporate polluter in the United States that year.

Examples of greenwashing in today's day and age include an online clothing store called Honeybum. They participate in a #SaveTheBees initiative because they acknowledge bees help pollinate the cotton used to produce their clothing. For this campaign, they state they plant flowers in order to save the declining bee population. However, on their site, they have no information about how many plants they have planted — just the claim that they are planting these flowers. If this campaign is even true, they are counteracting the benefits of it by producing fast fashion. In 2013, there were 15.1 million tons of textile waste generated.

The cleaning product brand Mrs. Meyers is another company that markets themselves to be environmentally friendly. Its dish soap has the word biodegradable right on the front of the bottle, but according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, the fragrances used in the Mrs. Meyers soap are not actually biodegradable.

A company working to combat this false advertising is Greenpeace. They are a global, independent campaigning organization. They launched their Stop Greenwash campaign in 2009 in order to help consumers identify truly green companies. Also, if you want to verify if a product you are using is environmentally friendly you can use the Environmental Working Groups site. They are a non-profit organization that allows you to search thousands of products to see potential health risks to you or the environment that product can cause.  

How to spot greenwashing

When you come across a company that advertises itself with claims of ecofriendly practices or ecofriendly terms, how can you tell if they’re sincere? First, you can see if they have labels vetted by a third party. For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Certified Organic Label can only go on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. There are no regulations in the United States stating that companies can’t falsely claim their product is “made with organic ingredients,” etc. So, always make sure those claims are backed up by legitimate sources. Likewise, always check the ingredients list. It is shocking to see the false claims companies will advertise that can be blatantly be disproved by their ingredients. Additionally, check to see if the organization has an about us page on their site. If there isn’t one then that should immediately be a major red flag.

Actual eco-friendly companies

Lush is a cosmetics company that has always been dedicated to helping the environment. None of their products are tested on animals, and they are all handmade, ethically sourced and 100 percent vegetarian. They also offer many products that have no packaging in order to reduce waste.

Beyond Meat is a meat alternative food brand. Their mission is to create The Future of Protein through plant-based meat. Moving away from animal products towards plant-based products help combat climate change, natural resource depletion and issues regarding livestock production and consumption.

Seventh Generation sells cleaning, paper, and personal care products. All of their products are made from renewable plant-based ingredients. Plus, all of their packaging is made from recycled materials and are recyclable once you're done with them.

There have been multiple legislative initiatives to stop greenwashing. California has passed a law banning sales of plastic bottles labeled as “compostable” or “biodegradable.” Also, the EU has passed legislation requiring brands that market themselves as “green” to prove their overall environmental impact is less than that of their competitors.  

With the growing awareness of greenwashing practices, consumers will be able to make more well-informed decisions and determine what companies deserve their support.