Lately, sustainability and eco-conscious living has received higher levels of attention; there is a growing need for sustainability, sustainable products. This can also be seen from a marketing perspective, and also as a private person. We see more and more green products on the shelves of most stores. And these products are popular with costumers. This tendency is seen by companies, and as we know, in economics, if there is a demand, there will be supply.
We can differentiate between two kinds of sustainable products. Ones that are made sustainably, most of the time they have regulations and qualifications that prove their sustainability. (I have to note here that these qualifications can be hard and expensive to obtain, so small businesses often can’t afford to have them) but if they are transparent and have proof for their sustainability they can be in this category.
The other category is greenwashing. These are usually bigger corporations, that are not sustainable (like fast fashion companies) but they see this demand for sustainable products, and create a sustainable line.
These can be backed up with vague labels or qualifications, which are not regulated, they are not transparent about their production, sustainability and usually they are characterized by the color green, since we associate green with sustainability, eco-friendliness, and organic food.
Definitions of greenwashing
So we talked about what greenwashing is, but let’s see some official definitions. According to the Cambridge dictionary, greenwashing is “making people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment, than it really is.” When companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.
How to avoid greenwashing?
Often it is hard to differentiate between real sustainable alternatives and greenwashing. If you are striving towards sustainability, it is important to pay attention to the signs. The first thing to look out for is internationally accepted labels and qualifications (like fair trade, 1%for the planet, certified B Corporation).
If a product has these qualifications, it is most likely sustainable. At the same time there are logos, and words that are not regulated and can be added to any product without them having anything to show for it. Examples for common greenwashing words include eco-friendly, green, all-natural, earth-friendly, non-toxic, plant-based, plant-derived, pure, raw, healthy, and organic (without certification). Greenwashing tactics also include the color green. These words mean nothing; there are no universally accepted requirements for these expressions.
We should also look at the manufacturer or distributer of the product. Often times you’ll see that even though you cannot see it at first, the sustainable alternative is produced by the same company as the unsustainable alternative.
Some examples for greenwashing
Even if you don’t know it, you have probably met with some kind of greenwashing. A lot of big corporations engaged in greenwashing in the recent years. Big companies such as Coca Cola, H&M, IKEA, McDonalds, Pepsi etc. have come out with seemingly green alternatives, but they have little transparency about it, or only vague promises.
What’s the problem with it? Why is it problematic?
The first, and most obvious answer is, that it is misleading the costumer. In some cases, greenwashing can be straight up fraud. However, this is a marketing tactic that works in most cases. Sometimes there is some backlash but usually companies get away with it. That is, until we educate ourselves about it. And try to avoid it.
So, we established that greenwashing is a problem, and we need to do something? But what can we do as consumers, and as companies or entrepreneurs? Well, firstly, educate ourselves, it is important to be aware of the problem. Secondly, we have to try to differentiate between sustainability and greenwashing, by looking for the signs mentioned earlier. And thirdly, keep in mind, that the most sustainable is not to buy new, but use what you already have, and if you have already bought something, keep using it, as long as possible.
And if you plan on starting a business, or already own one, and you want to be more sustainable, avoid greenwashing, try to be transparent. It is better to not advertise yourself as sustainable, than to do so and not do it properly.
Lili Perényi-Harka – Ecocenter Team