What is greenwashing? A marketer’s perspective on how to spot and stop it

Ahh, greenwashing.

I genuinely love that when I tell someone I’m an ethical and eco marketer, often the first thing they say is, “So, you’re against greenwashing!”.

Firstly, I definitely am.

Secondly, I love how people are becoming more aware of what greenwashing is.

So, what is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when the people behind a brand or business make claims for their product, service, or business to be more environmentally friendly than it actually is. It can include blatant lies but more often than not greenwashing is made up of the small exaggerations and/or the convenient, missing information.

One of the most common forms of greenwashing I see is in the ‘natural’ skincare sector. Often, brands will claim a product is good for you and the planet, while still including toxic ingredients, unsustainably sourced ingredients, and lots and lots of plastic.

Another common form of greenwashing I’m seeing more recently is the use of the terms ‘degradable, ‘biodegradable’, and ‘compostable’. For example, a brand might say that its bioplastic product is ‘compostable’. However, the consumer might not realise that the product can only be composted at a special facility and not in their home composting system.

Brands often greenwash in an attempt to capitalise on the consumer demand for ethically and sustainably sourced, made, and sold products. Most of the time, conscious consumers who are well versed in greenwashing can sniff these brands out – we’re smart. However, greenwashing can sometimes be hard to spot.

Who is to blame?

Usually, the blame is placed on copywriters, brand marketers, or product packaging designers. However, this isn’t always the case. Those doing the greenwashing ­– whether they’re aware of it or not ­– might also be business owners or assistants. ‘Green-washers’ can be anyone who plays a part in the public image and the communication of a brand’s story.

If we zoom out a little, government and industry regulations also have a role to play in greenwashing. It seems that, in some areas, regulations might need to be a bit stricter, so brands and companies have a legal reason to be more transparent and accountable about their products and processes.

How come it’s so hard to tell what greenwashing is?

Greenwashing can be really complex and tricky to spot, especially for consumers. It’s not always as simple as brands blatantly lying. Brands might have an ‘eco’ or ‘conscious’ collection of products that are third-party certified and made following ethical and sustainable standards. However, as consumers, we might fail to recognise that the company as a whole isn’t as environmentally responsible in all of its business practices. While this brand’s collection might be made responsibly, the brand is still greenwashing.

With current marketing buzzwords and strategies, it can also be hard for a business owner or the average marketer to see that they’re greenwashing in the first place. When a person or team within a brand fails to recognise their own greenwashing, it can be hard for the consumer to see this, too. Sometimes this is caused by:

  • Miscommunication between manufacturers and business owners
  • Business owners failing to make necessary audits of the manufacturers they’re working with
  • Marketing teams not knowing the complete story

In these cases, it’s about brand owners and communicators staying accountable for their education and ensuring that they know what’s happening throughout the brand’s supply chain.

Tips to spot greenwashing

  • Claiming a product doesn’t contain something when it’s impossible to contain that something, to begin with
  • Using green colours or earthy images on a product to suggest that it’s eco-friendly
  • Lack of certifications or third-party seals to back up environmental claims
  • Fabricated certifications
  • Lack of published information on environmental claims
  • ‘Capsule’ eco collections and lack of transference of environmental values across the company and supply chain
  • Use of dangerous ingredients such as fragrance, SLS, phenoxyethanol, phthalates, and petrolatum
  • One-sided stories and exaggerated positive contributions to the environment
  • Unclear language and jargon

Words and phrases that can signify greenwashing

  • Natural
  • Clean
  • Bio
  • Eco/Eco-friendly
  • Earth-friendly
  • Organic
  • Toxin-free
  • Chemical-free
  • No nasties
  • Zero waste
  • Plant-based
  • Reusable
  • Recyclable
  • Ethical
  • Sustainable
  • Green
  • Ethically made
  • Sustainably sourced
  • Consciously crafted
  • Thoughtfully made
  • Mindfully made
  • Made with love
  • Responsibly sourced
  • Regeneratively sourced
  • (And any combination of the above!)

Let me be clear: it’s okay to use these words and phrases. As an ethical and eco marketer, I use words and phrases like these a lot. However, the main problem with these is that they’re way too vague when used on their own. Without backing up these words and phrases with evidence and certifications, they’re wishy-washy (and greenwashy).

As a marketer, whenever I use any of the above words, I always make sure that they’re backed up – if not in the copy that they’re used in, then on a specific page on the brand’s website that is easily accessible (i.e. one click away from the homepage at the furthest).

If you’re an owner of a brand that uses one or more of these words, I’d encourage you to have a think about what exactly it is about your business that has earned you the right to make these claims. Then, make this clear on your website and be specific. Even better, I’d encourage you to do your research, make changes where necessary, and get the appropriate third-party certifications to make these claims. It’s about being honest, transparent, and building that trusting relationship with your community.

Signifiers that a brand is trustworthy

  • They back up their claims with certifications, testing seals and/or evidence
  • The brand focuses on being environmentally responsible throughout their entire supply chain and product range – not just focusing on one stage or one product
  • They are transparent about their sourcing ­and publish easily accessible information
  • The brand takes accountability and acknowledge mistakes if they happen

How can we stop greenwashing?

As business owners and brand story communicators

As owners and communicators, we need to be accountable for our own products, services, and knowledge. This is about seeking out the information we need to be aware of and clearly communicating with the teams we work with. At the end of the day, it boils down to honesty, transparency, and responsibility in business.

We need to:

  • Understand all the forms of greenwashing
  • Write about our products, services, certifications, and brand values with clarity
  • Give our communities and teams easy access to information about our processes and supply chains
  • Spend time reflecting on what you write – do you know it’s true?
  • Spend time reflecting on the imagery you create and use – could it be signifying a false claim?
  • Get third-party certified
  • Back up claims with evidence, always

As citizens and consumers

Sometimes, when a brand or company isn’t doing the right thing, it’s up to all of us, as citizens and consumers, to do the research, ask the tough questions, call greenwashing out, and vote with our money.

Before we buy anything making environmental claims, we need to do the research and find out:

  • What are the real ‘toxic ingredients’ and ‘dangerous chemicals’ that I need to be avoiding?
  • Does a bigger company own the brand that I’m supporting? Are they as environmentally responsible as the brand itself?
  • Does this brand show environmental responsibility throughout their entire supply chain and product collections?
  • What are the third-party certifications that can I trust and look out for?
  • Where was this product made?
  • How was this product made?
  • Does this products’ journey from seed to sale align with my values?

While I believe that the responsibility should be on a brand, first and foremost, unfortunately, sales and marketing regulations (in Australia, at least) just don’t cover the utmost level of accountability (yet!).

As consumers, if a brand’s published information doesn’t answer our questions, we need to step up and send the necessary emails and direct messages to get our questions answered. We need to let each other know when we see greenwashing and demand change. Most of all, when we have the choice between a brand that is greenwashing and a brand that is doing the right thing, we need to support the latter.

Our purchases make a difference and it’s time to recognise that there is so much power just in what we buy.

Have you spotted any greenwashing recently? If you’re a brand, what systems do you have in place to avoid greenwashing? Let me know.

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