The Seven Sins of Greenwashing

Greenwashing

These days, our focus has turned to more environmentally friendly products and services. We start to use less disposable material, turning to recyclable and biodegradable products instead. For the most part, this change is doing our Earth a favor – but on the other hand, some businesses have also started to capitalize on the appeal of “green” products, even when their products aren’t that eco-friendly after all.


What is Greenwashing?

Have you ever seen a notice in a hotel asking you to reuse towels to save the environment? Well, there may actually be an ulterior motive behind notices like those. In the 1960s when this scheme was devised, it was one of the most blatant examples of greenwashing that allowed hotels to enjoy lower laundry costs without really saving the environment. Unfortunately, some dishonest claims such as these have shaken people’s trust in their go-to brands.

Many companies find ways to make their products more appealing to the growing number of environmentally conscious consumers. While some businesses truthfully try to cut down on practices or products that can harm the environment, other companies find it much easier and cheaper to have their cake and eat it too. When a company attempts to mislead consumers to think their products are more eco-friendly than they actually are, that’s called greenwashing.

Greenwashing, also called “green sheen”, is a play on the word “whitewashing”, meaning the use of misleading information to conceal flaws or failures. The act of greenwashing is defined by these “seven sins”:

The Seven Sins

Hidden Trade-off

The hidden trade-off claims that a product is environmentally friendly because of a few minor attributes when there are other equally important factors that may actually be more harmful to the environment. For example, a company may claim that a product is eco-friendly because it uses recycled material. However, they may actually be using a lot of energy or releasing harmful chemicals during the manufacturing process, resulting in a bigger negative impact on the environment.


No Proof

The sin of no proof is committed when a company labels a product as eco-friendly without providing clear evidence that it is indeed so. For example, a company could say that their lightbulbs are energy-saving, but fail to provide any supporting data or certification.


Vagueness

One of the biggest myths is that “all-natural” or “organic” products are better than chemical or man-made products. However, simply labelling a product as “all-natural” is actually one of the sins of greenwashing. Vagueness occurs when a company uses very broad terms such as “all-natural” which sounds as if the product is environmentally friendly, causing the consumer to misinterpret the term. In fact, there are harmful substances that are also naturally occurring, such as arsenic, cocaine, nitriles (organic cyanide) and formaldehyde. As such, using vague terms such as “all-natural” or “organic” does not necessarily mean the product is environmentally friendly.


Irrelevance

Irrelevance is making a claim that may be truthful, but is nothing remarkable to people searching for eco-friendly products. Advertising a product as CFC-free may be a truth, but since CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are banned by law, every other product should be CFC-free in the first place.


Lesser of Two Evils

The lesser of two evils claims that a product is eco-friendly while ignoring the environmental effects of that type of product. For example, a company could make “organic” cigarettes, but cigarettes are still not very eco-friendly. It is like claiming that a fast food chain is a healthier choice, but even so, fast food is generally unhealthy.


Fibbing

Fibbing is advertising a product to be something it simply isn’t. An example is a product that claims to be ENERGY STAR® certified, but is not.


Worshiping False Labels

Worshiping false labels occurs when a company falsely implies that a product has a third party certification or endorsement – which it actually does not have. This is commonly achieved through using false certification labels.


Why is Greenwashing So Bad?

If any of these seven sins sound familiar to you, it’s probably not the first time you have come across them. Greenwashing is rampant these days, with many companies simply opting to make their products seem more environmentally friendly without having to go through formal certification processes – which usually require much more time and money.

It may be easy for us to point fingers at the high-profile companies that have been caught greenwashing, but this practice may actually be more common than we think. A 2010 study by TerraChoice on 4,744 “green” products sold in stores across the United States and Canada found that more than 95 percent of these products were guilty of some form of greenwashing.

Despite the fact that almost every company out there may be engaging in at least one of these seven sins, that doesn’t mean it is morally right to do so. The more consumers believe in these claims, the more companies will try to weed their way out of fair practices, and the more others will follow suit. As such, it is important that we pay attention to the products we use and make sure their claims are thoroughly investigated.


How Do We Avoid Greenwashing?

Unfortunately, with so many products on the shelves being guilty of greenwashing in some way, it can be difficult to avoid these false claims entirely. Although it is tough, there are organizations out there fighting for transparency and honesty in product advertising. There is also an increasing number of eco-friendly labels and certifications, given by impartial third parties to products whose entire manufacturing processes have been closely scrutinized.

Organizations may help to put pressure on companies and discourage them from greenwashing, but it’s not just the big names that can aid in the fight against dishonest claims. Ultimately, it’s up to us, the everyday consumers, to send the loudest message to companies that make use of greenwashing.

If you have found out that a company is advertising false eco-friendly claims, one simple way you can help is to spread the word. Tell your friends that this company is committing greenwashing and to avoid using its products.

Of course, not every company that claims to be green is engaging in greenwashing. Some companies may truly strive to be eco-friendly, and they are usually more than happy to talk about their practices in detail. If a label seems vague, don’t be afraid to ask the company for more details on their eco-friendly practices – that’s one way you can tell the genuine green companies from those that are simply pretending.

Now that you know what the seven sins of greenwashing are, be on the lookout for them on the products you use every day. Make sure the sources you get shopping recommendations from are actively scanning for fraudulent claims.


Discussion

Think of a product you use daily, and do some research on how it’s manufactured and what materials it is made of. Does this product commit any of the seven sins of greenwashing? If soGreenwashing, can you tell which ones?

How do you think companies can avoid greenwashing while keeping their products just as appealing to consumers? 

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Jan 03, 2020

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