What Is Greenwashing and How To Spot It

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I was standing in the grocery store household products aisle trying to find a more environmentally-friendly dish soap. There were a lot of options. One package said "plant-based," another said "natural," while still another said "non-toxic." Many had beautiful images of leaves or clean beaches. I finally chose a brand I had heard of before and took it home feeling all great about myself and my responsible shopping... well, come to find out a few weeks later, the product I chose was not as good as I thought it was. I felt deflated and honestly a little cheated.

Does this situation sound familiar at all? You want to make good decisions for the environment and your own health, but with all the different terminology and information available it can be difficult to tell what is really true and what is marketing. So how can you even navigate in that kind of purchasing climate? Read on for my tips and tricks on spotting greenwashing.

What is greenwashing?

Ever heard the term? Even if you haven't, I'm willing to bet you've come across it plenty in situations like the one above. Greenwashing is when companies deceptively spin their marketing to make them look more green or environmentally conscious than they actually are. Sadly, this actually happens. A lot.

Now, I'm not talking about people who are trying their best to be upfront and accidentally miss something. Here I'm talking about deception. Bad PR. Marketers know that we want environmentally-friendly products and sometimes they'll put their time and money into appearing that way instead of making actual changes inside the company.

So what does greenwashing actually look like?

There are many ways to greenwash, but here are a few of the big ones:

Vagueness: One tactic is the use of statements such as "green," "natural," or "non-toxic" that are so broad that you don't really know what they're saying. I have seen several furniture websites claim to value sustainability and make eco-friendly furniture without a single sentence about how they do that.

Irrelevant claims: A product may claim something like "no CFC's." It's a three-letter acronym so you go with it if you don't know what CFC's are. But that claim isn't really saying anything since CFC's have been banned in the US for decades.

Green by association: Some companies will partner with non-profits or other environmentally-conscious organizations so you won't look further into what they're actually doing. Because if they're associated with such a great cause then they must be doing things right, right? Well, not always. This can also take the form of marketing materials or packaging with pristine nature photos that don't actually apply to what they're selling, but make you associate that product with that image.

Red Herring: A product may highlight and focus on one good thing, like the fact that their countertops are made of recycled materials, while neglecting to mention the not-so-good parts, like all the extra water and energy used in the manufacturing process. This is a very tricky and extremely prevelent tactic.

Straight-up lying: No explanation needed. Yup, this happens.

how do you spot greenwashing?

It would be nice if every label was completely honest and every company trustworthy. But since that's not reality, you need a few tricks up your sleeve. These require a little work on your part to become informed on the front end, but you'll feel so much better about your purchase decisions and be able to use your voice (i.e. your $$$) to support truly great companies.

Look for specifics: Avoid vague terms and look for more specific claims, such as "packaging made of 100% post-consumer recycled material" rather than the more arbitrary "green packaging."

Look for something to back up claims: When a package makes a legitimate claim they should have some data to back it up. Percentages, details, research... something that proves the truthfulness of the statement. And that evidence should be easily accessible: either on the packaging or on their website.

Look for legitimate, high-level certifications: There are a several widely-accepted, third-party certifications (the third-party part is important) that show real substance in a product. You should be aware of these and look for them when you purchase. Some include:

  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified - meaning wood is sourced from sustainable forests
  • Greenguard certified - meaning a product has met standards for low VOC emissions
  • Green Seal - meaning a product meets certain environmental, performance, and health standards; you can search their database of certified products and services here
  • Cradle to Cradle certified - Cradle to Cradle is all about the idea of a circular economy (as opposed to a linear economy) where the entire lifecycle of a product is considered

Do your own research: It can be time-consuming, but it's important to do your own research before you shop. Look into a company before purchasing from them, educate yourself on common terms, and see if there are alternatives (like making your own cleaners) before making a decision. There are a few websites that can help, such as EWG, and Green Seal.

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Now you have some good tools to help you see past the green haze. Good luck with all your shopping! And remember: while taking care of this earth is a big deal, remember to take everything with a grain of salt. You're [probably ;)] not going to die because you purchased the wrong bottle of shampoo or didn't know the wood from your table came from a non-sustainable forest. We're all just trying to do the best we know how and learning as we go.

Have you ever been fooled by marketing? Let me know in the comments!