Monday, 28 November 2022

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The truth behind Greenwashing

What is greenwashing? Greenwashing, sometimes referred to as “green sheen”, is when a company claims that their products are beneficial for the environment when they really are not. “The term greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, back when most consumers received their news from television, radio and print media – the same outlets that corporations regularly flooded with a wave of high-priced, slickly produced commercials and print ads” (The Guardian). Many companies continue to trick consumers into falling for this kind of false and wrongful sustainability advertisement today.

A lot of consumers today are more cautious about products they use daily and how that product is going to affect the environment. According to the Regulatory Review, “About one-third of Americans, and upwards of 50 percent of consumers worldwide, say that they are willing to pay more for green or environmentally-friendly products.” However, a downside to this is that a lot of people believe a product’s environmental claims right away without second thought. There are quite a few consumers who fall for this false advertisement due to various reasons such as limited shopping time and little awareness on how to tell the difference between a real eco-friendly product versus a greenwashing product. Products ranging from food to clothing and household items are often susceptible to greenwashing. A private marketing consultancy called TerraChoice did a study in 2007 on products in six big box stores that claimed to be environmentally friendly. The claims they found from this study were referred to as the “Six Sins of Greenwashing.” They are Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off, Sin of No Proof, Sin of Vagueness, Sin of Irrelevance, Sin of Fibbing, and Sin of Lesser of Two Evils. There are seven sins of greenwashing, but one was not found in this study. The results of the sins from this study are shown in the following pie chart.

A company commits Sin of the Hidden-Trade off when trying to display a product as being “greener” than it really is based on only one environmental aspect instead of several. The second one, Sin of No Proof, is committed when a company cannot provide reliable facts or valid certification for environmental qualities their product claims to have. Sin of Vagueness is done when a company uses broad and insufficient information to describe the environmental benefits of a product. For example, a cleaning product that is just described as “natural”. The Sin of Irrelevance takes place when a company’s product consists of useless environmental information that is not beneficial to the consumer looking for a real eco-based product. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are some of the most used irrelevant claims that are still used today even though they were banned. Many companies still put these claims on their products to compete among similar products made by other companies. The Sin of lesser of two evils is committed when consumers are distracted from the overall influence the product has on the environment. The Sin of fibbing occurs when a company uses blatant environmental lies on their products. The Sin of worshiping false labels is when a company’s product claims to have third-party endorsement. Many companies and their marketers have become experts at using greenwashed information to trick consumers when it comes to various product categories ranging from food to beauty, clothing, cleaning supplies and more. Let us take a further look into how greenwashing is being used in some of these product categories.

The food industry vs. greenwashing

Is it really all natural or organic? Many food products that we see in our grocery stores today are labeled as these terms. According to the Consumer Federation of America, an organic product must not involve the use of GMO’s and a consumer should always look for a USDA label when looking for real organic products. Consumers also should not necessarily believe a product is good for them when it claims to be natural because these products are often made of ingredients that are not natural. The FDA does not support the use of “all natural” claims. Food products that are naturally grown have a “Certified Naturally Grown” label, which means that there were no synthetic growth methods or alterations used on those products. Many consumers also tend to buy “non-GMO” items, which are products that have not been genetically modified. A real “non-GMO” product has a butterfly seal.

Cosmetics vs. greenwashing

Many cosmetic brands have also been guilty of greenwashing. Many consumers are always looking for the safest and most natural product that will benefit both their body and the environment. The cosmetic industry can get away with various environmental claims without accurate regulations. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “The law does not require cosmetic labeling to have FDA approval before cosmetic products go on the market, and FDA does not have a list of approved or accepted claims for cosmetics.” This allows manufacturers to get away with an outstanding amount of greenwash labeling. A lot of cosmetic products often claim to be natural, organic, preservative-free, chemical-free, or dermatologist approved when they may not really be entirely that. These terms often cause a consumer to believe they are good products that are safe to use. A consumer shopping for cosmetic items should always pay attention to the ingredients used and research the company’s true intentions behind using such environmental claims before trusting and buying from that company. The Ingredient list is the most helpful tool when trying to find the right cosmetic product because companies are not allowed to provide false information on it.

Cleaning supplies vs. greenwashing

Cleaning supplies are another product category that are prone to greenwashing attempts. When a consumer is shopping for a cleaning product, they are more likely to pick something that smells good and that says something along the lines of “natural”. Consumers should read beyond the scent and pay attention to the harmful chemicals and other ingredients that the product may have. Many cleaning products can be dangerous for humans and children if not used appropriately. According to The Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, “U.S. law allows manufacturers of cleaning products to use almost any ingredient they wish, including known carcinogens and substances that can harm fetal and infant development. And the government doesn’t review the safety of product before they’re sold.” There are several resources such as The Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice and others that consumers can research to steer away from greenwashing efforts.

Apparel vs. greenwashing

Clothing is also affected by greenwashing. Some clothing brands have fallen into the trap of making products appear to be completely sustainable. But realistically, “sustainable” clothing pieces are not entirely so because of clothing factory conditions and who makes them and what they are really made of. The best approach to sustainable clothing is to only buy clothing pieces that you know you will wear often and to buy from second-hand stores. It is also best to research a clothing company’s environmental motives.

Unfortunately, greenwashing has ruined consumerism in many ways. Companies from all product categories such as the ones previously mentioned should be held accountable for their deceiving eco-friendly advertisement and products. It is our job as consumers to pay more attention to a company’s motive behind a product and its ingredients, the certifications it is supposed to have, and how it is ultimately going to affect the environment.


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