How to avoid it when you're trying to be a conscientious shopper.
"Greenwashing" is when a company provides misleading, exaggerated or false information about it's environmental impact. This act of deception is intended to play on the conscience of the public, to create a false image that makes their products and services more appealing.
This may be achieved through unsubstantiated claims, or it can be by using words and phrases that sound environmentally friendly but in reality have no meaning, such as "kinder to the planet". Sometimes greenwashing is more subtle, such as using images of nature and wildlife alongside product images to create an association, even if the product isn't green or sustainable. While growing concern about the environment and pollution is leading to valuable changes in the business world, there is naturally going to be a growing number of companies who want to capitalize on it.
A good example of greenwashing in action would be when McDonalds introduced paper straws in 2019. It later turned out that the paper straws were not recyclable. Although McDonalds had made the switch away from plastic, they were still offering a single-use item that can't be recycled, while letting the customer believe they were making a better choice.
One reason why this practice of greenwashing is dangerous is that it stalls real progress and redirects valuable funds. Whether this is from companies accessing funding and grants that they aren't entitled to, or through consumers putting their hard-earned money into products that aren't really working towards environmental causes. Some companies add a premium to products with eco-friendly credentials, which leads to consumers overpaying for goods. This is an unethical practice, which is not only damaging to consumers trust but changes the whole market value of sustainable products.
A crackdown on greenwashing:
Fortunately the consumer watchdog in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have just launched an investigation into greenwashing and environmental claims. 1 They will be targeting the investigation at food, drink, toiletries and cleaning products to test whether environmental claims relating to ingredients, production, packaging and its disposal are accurate.
This investigation is not the first of it's kind. Last year there was a similar investigation made into the fashion industry. The result of this is that three major companies, ASOS, Boohoo and George at Asda are being scrutinized by CMA for their environmental claims. 2
The CMA also developed the Green Claims Code. 3 The code can be used as a framework for businesses to ensure that they aren't falling foul of greenwashing, but is also a way for consumers to learn to recognize truthful claims when they're out shopping. Worryingly, the CMA estimate that 40% of green claims made online may be misleading.
In 2022, The Harris Poll conducted a survey of business leaders about sustainability in their organizations and 58% admitted that they had engaged in corporate greenwashing. 4 Which is why it is no surprise that there is growing distrust among consumers.
How to protect yourself from greenwashing:
There are some useful tips by the CMA Green Claims Code that will help you to get started. Included on the site is a quiz that you can use to help hone your ability to recognize greenwashing. You can also use the CMA's 6 guiding principles for businesses. They state that environmental claims should:
Be truthful and accurate
Not leave out or hide important information
Compare goods and services in a fair and meaningful way
Take the entire life cycle of the product or service into account
Another way you can educate yourself about different companies would be through The Ethical Consumer magazine. They conduct independent reviews of companies and give them a rating based on their environmental, social, political and governance performance. I've personally found this website very useful and interesting to read but as a business, I also use the company ratings to help determine if new suppliers and producers fit our own ethical values.
Knowing what greenwashing looks like in the wild is also really important. Things to look out for might include:
Broad and vague language use, eg. saying something is sustainable or eco-friendly without explaining how or why
Buzz words or green images, eg. labelling something as recyclable, or using the triangle/circle arrow graphic on the packaging
Token gestures, eg. making a bin bag recyclable doesn't mean it is eco as bin bags aren't separated from the waste stream, they will be landfilled too
Not providing evidence to back up claims, or not providing real figures, eg. saying something is made from 50% more recycled material when it has gone from 2% to 3%
I hope that this is a helpful starting point for anyone worried about getting misled by environmental claims and greenwashing. If you have any other tips, or trusted sources of information please do share them in the comments to help us all root out and boycott his behaviour.