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What is Greenwashing? Understanding the Shades of Green

Updated: Oct 6, 2018


You would have seen this term repeatedly used throughout the xhebit platform, as well as in relation to other sustainable products. But what does it really mean?




What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a term used to refer to products, services, or businesses that are made to appear environmentally sustainable, but in reality are NOT. Often this image of being sustainable is projected either through marketing, packaging or unsubstantiated claims (without proof) of being eco-friendly.

History

The term Greenwashing was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 when he came across a hotel in Fiji requesting guests to re-use their towels in an effort to save resources. However, he also noticed that all the other activities of the hotel did not indicate a desire to be truly sustainable. Hence, he coined the term Greenwashing, in reference to using the environment (green) as a ruse to get guests to return the towels (washing) – Greenwashing.


Why is Greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing is misleading and does not benefit the environment or consumer. It can even lead to more environmental problems if increasing numbers of consumers purchase the product/service thinking they are helping the environment.

Greenwashing Scenarios for a better understanding.

Example 1

You consider purchasing a premium bottle of wine that is produced using “mountain spring water”. The company claims using “mountain spring water” benefits you as it contains natural minerals and is eco-friendly.


In truth, nothing is mentioned about the quality of this “mountain spring water”, even mountain spring waters can be contaminated. Nothing is mentioned on whether the spring water is being used responsibly – is their usage affecting the streams, surrounding vegetation, and the local communities that depend on it.


So what would you be paying for? The POWER of marketing!


Example 2

A company claims their notebooks are biodegradable therefore environmentally friendly. The notebook cover has pictures of trees and the recycling symbol on the cover, and is called the GreenNotebook. All this gives the impression of the notebook being an eco-friendly product.

The truth is all paper is biodegradable because it comes from trees, an organic material. What the company fails to say is if the paper originates from trees that are sustainably produced – the most important aspect for paper products.


So, is this notebook really GREEN? No.


Greenwashing – Label on notebook which does not mention if the recycled materials come from sustainable sources. All paper is decomposable, it is the source that matters (left).







Green Packaging – Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) paper label with license number (right).










Example 3

A business certifies its headquarters as ISO14001 compliant (environmental management). This is only for their headquarters but not their manufacturing operations, which are run in a different country. They then proceed to use this certification to market their product as being “green” as well. HOWEVER, the sustainable manufacture of a product and how an office is run, are two very different processes. The sustainable operations of one, does not automatically guarantee the other.


Typical Traits of Greenwashing
  1. Vague claims – “Good for the environment”, but what does that mean?

  2. No evidence – “Toxic-free chemicals” with no specifics on what these chemicals are and no follow up information on their website.

  3. Misleading – “This paper product is biodegradable and renewable”. All paper products are biodegradable and renewable because they are made from trees. The concern with paper is the source of trees used.

  4. Packaging – Green or beige colours with scenes of trees, mountains or with the recycling logo. Sometimes this can mean the packaging can be recycled. However, Greenwashers will use this to mislead consumers into thinking the company or product is green.

  5. Names – Many paper products, toiletries, detergents have the name “Earth” or “Eco”, “Organics”, “Bio”, “Enviro” incorporated into the brand name. On closer inspection, there would be no indication of anything sustainable about the product.

These are some examples, and once you start paying attention, you will find more!


Green product – Specifics about surfactants, accreditation, and type of recycled material used are provided.


Greenwashing – Label on plastic water bottles for sale. Water bottles are re-useable and plastics are recyclable – stating the obvious. No information on the source used to produce the plastic e.g. plant or fossil fuel derived.

How to spot Greenwashing? The Truth vs The Whole-Truth
  1. Ask questions – If you are in conversation with the business and are trying to decide if they are really green, ask them for specifics on their claim of sustainability.

  2. Google the company – No one can hide from the internet or social media. If the company has a bad environmental track record, there is likely to be evidence online.

  3. Certifications from reputable certifying bodies – Ask for third-party certifications. *Remember, not all certifications are credible. Only the ones that are transparent about their criteria should be considered.


Green product – Lip balm with specifics on ingredients, animal testing, and ECOCERT, an eco-certification label (left).












Greenwashing – Toilet paper product specifies 100% biodegradable and renewable, which all paper products are. No mention on sustainable sourced trees (right).



Questions, questions, questions – Here are some questions you can ask.
  1. What specifically, is sustainable about your product or service?

Businesses that practice sustainability will be able to give you specifics right away. Those that are Greenwashing, will provide vague or general answers. They may claim they recycle, but when asked for specifics like what, where, how, they won’t have answers.

  1. If it’s a product, what are the materials used to manufacture it? Does the manufacturing process reduce the use of toxic chemicals, energy and waste water?

Genuine green products usually have a transparent supply chain. This means the information regarding raw materials or how it’s manufactured would be available. Businesses that produce green products are usually very happy to share their achievements.

  1. If it’s a service, are sustainable initiatives in place for carrying out the service? Are staff trained in these initiatives?

Businesses can have beautifully crafted environment statements, however, this is of no use if there is no follow-through. By talking to staff, you will get a sense of how committed a company is to providing a sustainable service.


As you start to ask questions, many of these green facades will fall away to reveal Greenwashing from genuinely sustainable products/services. So, start asking those questions today!  For more information on Greenwashing check out http://sinsofgreenwashing.com/.


Interested in learning more about Greenwashing? Book the Shades of Green in Greenwashing workshop and start your journey to being an environmentally savvy consumer.