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What is ‘Greenwashing’ and How to Avoid Getting Swept Away

From food to fashion, technology to travel, it seems everyone is going green. With a greater awareness of sustainability issues amongst consumers, businesses are doing all they can to demonstrate their ethical and environmental credentials to convince us to part with our cash, but how do you know who's genuine?

While it’s brilliant to hear more organisations are doing their bit for the planet, you wouldn’t be blamed for questioning the motivations of some – after all, there is a lot of green to be made in going green! According to the Co-op’s 2019 Ethical Consumer Report, the British public have increased their ethical spending (this includes everything from Fairtrade coffee to switching to renewable energy providers) almost four times over in the last twenty years, with an annual outlay of £41.1bn. It’s not unsurprising then that 78% of British businesses expect their focus on sustainability to increase their sales revenues.

Thanks to the potential financial gains to be made when a company adopts an environmentally friendly approach, brands will often use clever tactics to market themselves as such, when in reality, they are doing very little other than increasing their bank balance – otherwise known as greenwashing.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines greenwashing as: “behaviour or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”.

Essentially, making big claims that ultimately boil down to tokenistic gestures; setting attainable goals to give the impression of success – or worse still, setting abstract, unmeasurable goals so they can never be questioned on their results.

Whether we realise it or not, it’s likely most of us have unknowingly bought into these corporate ploys at one time or another. Take hotel chains for example; it’s not uncommon for guests to be asked to consider if their towels need washing or if they can save on electricity and water by reusing them – thus making a green decision to save the planet. However, in the same room, you’re then supplied with an abundance of single-use plastic in the form of individually wrapped disposables. It’s these inconsistencies that suggest the organisation isn’t as green as it would lead you to believe, and in actual fact is making cost savings as a result of your genuine, eco-minded intentions.

So, we know the grass isn’t always greener, but how can you know whose intentions are real and who is greenwashing? We’ve compiled our top five things to look out for:

Language

Lots of green terms are thrown around these days, form zero waste to carbon neutral, however the issue for consumers is understanding what they mean. The majority of these terms have no regulated definition which means a brand can use these buzzwords in any way that suits them and without any real proof they are what they say they are.

When organisations greenwash, often their language can change almost overnight. They may have always been climate conscious for example, but now they’ve recognised this as a marketing tool and are suddenly using such terms across their channels to rebrand without any real change. Too much green jargon can be a huge red flag so be careful not to take things at face value and do some more research.

Vagueness

Brands are great at telling us what we want to hear. They’ll draw us in with all these incredible eco things they’ve achieved and their green ambitions for the future – they know exactly what to say to hook us in. But wait, where’s the detail? It’s all good and well them telling us but they need to show us. Where are the stats? The evidence? The proof that what they’re saying is true? We already know that terms like carbon neutral can be banded around by anyone, so it’s important that if great claims are made there is detail to back them up. If messaging is vague, there is probably something to hide and maybe all isn’t as it seems.

Contradictions

Fashion brands provide some excellent examples of contradictory greenwashing – creating new, sustainable ranges using vegan, ethically sourced materials to give the impression the brand is all together more environmentally friendly. Never mind the fact these ranges often cost more, but they completely ignore that their other garments are made by underpaid, overworked employees overseas, using toxic dyes, unsustainable materials, and are far from ethical.

But the fashion industry isn’t alone in this. There are organisations in many sectors with inconsistencies in where their funding comes from, the partnerships they have and the tokenistic ‘green’ gestures they make while ignoring far larger, more damaging practices they carry out. Authenticity is key, and if a brand is riddled with contradictions, they’re likely not genuine and more research should be undertaken before you part with your cash.

Commitment

To what extent is the business committing to real change? Or are they simply bolting on a new policy and working everything else around it to fit? For a company to be truly sustainable there must be a fundamental change within the ethos of the brand – both internally and externally.

Such changes cannot happen overnight of course, but is the company pledging to do more giving themselves a pat on the back having completed it already? An environmentally conscious approach cannot be an activity that sits alongside other things the organisation does, it must run through their DNA.

Responsibility

In many cases when organisations look to make eco-conscious decisions, they turn to offsetting. Often businesses will commit to planting X number of trees for every Y sold, to absorb the carbon generated in the creation of their product or service. The issue here is that those trees will take years to grow to capture the amount of CO2 needed, and many of them will never reach their required capacity due to droughts, wildfires, and deforestation – all the while the business continues to generate more carbon.

The reason these schemes are a warning sign for greenwashing, is because they’re a low-cost activity for the company that requires very little change. The business can carry on creating carbon because they’re ticking the offsetting box. In reality, this often shifts the problem elsewhere causing harm to communities where the trees are planted. By taking the responsibility away from themselves, the company is not addressing the issue – the need to reduce and prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere in the first place.

Often greenwashing is a consequence of brands trying to tap into a topic that they know is important to consumers – and should be to businesses too. In doing so they inflate their own successes or use unregulated language to rebrand without any real change. In other cases, businesses outright lie to mislead consumers and gain competitive advantage within their industry.

Whether deliberate or not, we hope you’re now equipped with the tools to avoid getting hung out to dry by greenwashers, and can put your money into authentic organisations that are genuinely making decisions that will benefit the planet physically, socially and economically.

Written by
Francesca Gallone