Greenwashing is a term used to describe situations where companies mislead consumers by claiming to be eco-friendly or sustainable, taking advantage of consumers who are serious about making mindful choices. Unfortunately, the government does not regulate terms like “natural,” “green,” and “nontoxic” when it comes to product labels. On the other hand, many companies are not even aware of its greenwashing due to a lack of knowledge about what sustainability really entails.
The term “greenwashing” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an essay after he came across a sign at a resort asking guests to help the environment by reusing their towels while on a research trip to Samoa. The sign claimed that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage to the oceans and reefs. Instead, the hotel was only trying to reduce laundry costs while marketing itself as being eco-friendly. In an interview with The Guardian, Westerveld stated: “I don’t think they really cared all that much about the coral reefs. They were in the middle of expanding at the time and were building more bungalows.”
Eco-friendly consumers should learn how to spot possible red flags. A company can easily use trendy buzzwords or claim its products are recyclable but that does not mean it will be possible to find a place that will recycle them at all. If the brand is promoting sustainability, look for numbers and hard data to back up the claims. A truly sustainable or environmentally friendly business will make it very easy to find its information publicly, such as on its website. For example, the website for Allbirds explains that its sneakers are made from merino wool, with laces made from recycled plastic bottles, and insoles that contain castor bean oil. Even the boxes used in shipping are made from recycled cardboard.
Greenwashing can be a form of false advertising. In 2010, Fiji water (a company that produces single-use plastic water bottles) was named in a class-action lawsuit citing that the company had profited by claiming its products were carbon negative. In 2020, the Tide laundry detergent brand was called out for advertising that its Purclean detergent was 100% plant-based. In actuality, it was really only 75% plant-based. Nestle had developed a bad reputation for greenwashing and unethical behavior over the years. However, in 2018, the company announced that it would be turning all of its plastic packaging 100% recyclable and reusable by 2025. Still, environmental groups called them out for doing too little too late. For the third time in a row, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo were named the world’s top plastic polluters in 2020.
Signs of Greenwashing
- Jargon or information that only a scientist could check or understand
- Companies that aren’t transparent or open
- “Greening” dangerous products to make it seem safe (eg, “eco-friendly” cigarettes)
- Hypocrisies, such as efficient light bulbs made in a factory that pollutes rivers
Meanwhile, several countries are cracking down on misleading environmental claims. For example, the Australian Trade Practices Act punishes companies, if found guilty, with fines up to $6 million. Greenwashing is deceitful and profitable for companies whose products may be slightly more expensive due to the growing number of consumers seeking more eco-friendly choices.