What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is a tactic used by companies to make wrongful claims about the environmental benefits of their products. It makes us, the customers, believe that with our purchases we have been making an impact. Yet, it can be the opposite – the brands will do everything to manipulate us into thinking their products are sustainable while operating in damaging ways to the environment. The main strategic words used are sustainable, eco, organic, natural, botanical, clean, green, plant-based, etc. Most of them are simply misleading.
In reality, labelling your product green has nothing to do with the product itself – it shows a certain marketing intention (don’t confuse it with green marketing). There is a wave of increasing interest in eco-friendly initiatives and brands choose to promote it without any action to make their products sustainable. According to Nielsen, the market for “sustainable goods” is projected to reach $150 billion in sales by the start of 2021 as sustainably-focused companies dramatically outperform low-sustainability brands. No wonder 98% of green-labelled products are actually greenwashed.
The only reason why brands have been using this marketing ploy on us is simple – it’s not regulated. Not because the government doesn’t care (actually, I can’t say for sure), it’s just that most of these words are subjective terms. What does green mean? And natural? Can something seem natural to me but won’t seem natural to you? Define eco? How many plants should be used for a product to be labelled plant-based? There is no crime committed, as brands tend to use the vocabulary based on how they perceive their products, not on what the product consists of or promotes. While companies lie to convince their buyers that their products are good for the environment, they end up doing more harm than good.
McDonald’s uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK alone. In 2018, the restaurant chain decided to practice sustainability (or pretend it does) and replaced the plastic straws with paper ones. Good old McDonald's, right? I bet millions of customers still praise the corporation for its green reform. Everyone has been talking about banning plastic straws, so McDonald’s might look like the hero. Yet, the new paper straws can’t be recycled (facepalm emoji)! I guess it was all for the picture? Destroying trees while saving the ocean…
Amazon vows to be carbon neutral by 2040. A report from one of the nonprofit ocean advocacy organizations estimated that Amazon was responsible for 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019. The retailer has a bad reputation when it comes to wrapping wastage – don’t pretend you never had to think how unnecessary the packaging was after receiving all your online shopping goods. Nevertheless, the brand chooses to mask this issue while talking about their sustainability goals instead. That moment when your products are green, but your packaging isn’t.
Do you remember when Volkswagen equipped millions of its diesel cars with software that helped to cheat on emissions tests? Their so-called “clean vehicles” emitted pollutants at levels up to 40 times the US limit. Other car manufacturers have been facing similar allegations, including BMW, Chevrolet, and Mercedes-Benz (the nitrogen oxides’ release of their “earth-friendly” BlueTEC vehicles is 65 times higher than allowed). Since the cases went straight to the court, I do believe the manufactures got the point. However, no matter how shocking these examples are, they show nothing but reality – how far the brands can go and what lines they are able to cross to trick the customers.
Greenwashing can be done across various market segments. Honestly, you can find a loophole in any kind of business and present it as green. There is a potential for a good regulating legislature that we deserve, but it will take some time. The pressure of eliminating greenwashing is on the responsible customers who have to research, pay attention to red flags, and refuse to believe misleading labels.
Think about the common Russian proverb trust but verify. Every business aims for a profit and if companies have to manipulate the consumers to get it, most of them will. It’s your responsibility to check the certificates and detailed information online. Support brands that don’t perform sustainability but actually practice it. If you learn strategies used in achieving this greenwashing effect, there is no going back – it becomes very hard to ignore. Companies know that they have a large influence over consumers buying patterns, but you’re the one making choices every day. Educate yourself and help the planet.