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As you're walking down the shampoo aisle at the store, you pass by countless brands. But you're looking for more than just shampoo; you're looking for an eco-friendly company that is working to preserve the environment.
And then you spot it – a perfectly chic bottle with an “eco-friendly” stamp of approval.
But just what does that eco-friendly icon mean?
Is the product truly eco-friendly?
You take a look at the ingredients list on the back side of the bottle. You notice that the list of unpronounceable, synthetic ingredients. Suddenly you start to question whether there are any truly eco-friendly shampoos available.
If you want to make a difference and help preserve the environment, it's important that you understand what is truly eco-friendly.
In this article, we'll take a look at what greenwashing is, how you can spot it, and how it impacts everything from businesses to the environment.
What is Greenwashing?
The market is flooded with a deceptive amount of “eco-friendly” products and services. Because of the intense focus on environmental sustainability, most companies are using the eco-friendly designation as a marketing tactic.
This is where greenwashing comes in. Greenwashing is when companies employ marketing tactics that falsely claim that their products or services are focused on environmental sustainability.
Greenwashing occurs more frequently than you might expect. Many companies glorify their “organic” or “eco-friendly” products while continuing to produce them with chemicals, genetic modifications, or environment-harming practices.
Other companies promote their environmental achievements to avoid talking about their less environmentally friendly practices. In this case, greenwashing is essentially a PR tactic used to distract consumers.
Signs of Greenwashing to Avoid While Shopping
As our environmental consciousness grew throughout the past few decades, companies became more adept at learning how to market their products in an environmentally friendly way.
Many watchdog and nonprofit groups have studied marketing claims and identified 10 different ways that consumers can identify products that have been greenwashed.
The first clue that a product is greenwashed is the use of fluffy and vague language.
For example, the “Eco” designation is now used on countless products. There are no specific criteria established to decide what qualifies for the “Eco” designation. This means that any company can decide to market their products with the “Eco” designation, regardless of how the product was produced. Over time, “eco” became a catchphrase and doesn't truly represent any eco-friendly values.
Another sign of greenwashing is when a “green” product is produced by a dirty company.
What if a fuel producing company started selling environmentally friendly products made from recycled material?
Would you really trust it to be environmentally friendly?
If a company is not truly committed to environmental sustainability, can it really be trusted to produce eco-friendly products?
The third sign of greenwashing is suggestive marketing imagery. Oftentimes, companies will use images of environmental symbols like plants, polar bears, the planet and more . Marketers will also use the color green to symbolize environmental consciousness. They cut and paste these images all over the packaging but it may not accurately reflect the product or how it was created.
Greenwashed products and companies may also use irrelevant claims to tout their environmental sustainability. This is most often seen in the marketing or promotion of mandated environmental achievements.
Say, for example, a company starts promoting that it now uses renewable energy to power 50% of its production facilities.
If this target was mandated, would they have met this goal otherwise? Probably not.
Making changes to become more environmentally sustainable can be expensive. This means that many companies won't make this shift until it is mandated. It should not be considered a noteworthy achievement to meet mandated environmental goals.
Another sign that a company is greenwashing their products is if they boast about being the best in class.
If that class is filled with companies that are known to pollute and disregard environmental best practice, does it matter that you are the best in that class?
Bragging about being the top dog in a polluting and eco-ignorant group doesn't win you any prizes.
You can also spot greenwashing from companies that lack environmental credibility. There are some industries that are just inherently bad for the environment. If you see an oil company promoting its green practices, you should definitely be suspicious.
The seventh sign of greenwashing is the predominant use of jargon to dazzle the consumer with the miracle of science.
Many times, companies will use intentionally confusing jargon to prevent the consumer from questioning their environmental practices. Look for words like degradable, eco-savvy, and free range. While these words may help a product seem more environmentally friendly, it isn't necessarily true. Don't get fooled by this deceptive greenwashing trick.
You should also be wary of shady or questionable endorsements. Greenwashing companies will give donations to environmental groups so that they can put an environmental seal of approval on their products. Putting an environmental stamp of approval on a product that is inherently bad for the environment is completely counter-intuitive. Donating to an environmental cause should not absolve them of their harmful environmental practices.
Greenwashing also typically lacks soundproof. The environmental claims made by companies need to be able to be substantiated by sound, scientific evidence. If you do a little digging, you may find that their claims are totally bogus.
Finally, companies will use outright lies to greenwash their products. This is the most blatant and unacceptable form of greenwashing. Some companies have no shame in using false claims and outright lies to greenwash their products.
How Does Greenwashing Impact Business and the Planet?
Greenwashing isn't just harmful to the planet; it has serious consumer impacts.
When companies choose to greenwash their products, they risk perpetuating skepticism in consumers.
Consumers buy eco-friendly products because they want to make an impact on preserving the environment. When the consumers discover that a supposedly eco-friendly product has been greenwashed, it creates a natural skepticism. If this skepticism builds up enough, they will eventually lose trust in eco-friendly products altogether.
This will lead to consumers feeling like they can't make a difference in the environment. Eventually, they will stop buying the more expensive eco-friendly products because they all seem like a sham.
Why bother wasting time and money investing in environmental sustainability when it's all a fraud, anyway?
Greenwashing creates a complete lack of faith in the environmental sustainability movement.
Greenwashing can also do serious harm to the company and its brand reputation. When consumers find out that a company is falsely claiming to be eco-friendly, it often results in a sharp decline in brand loyalty. Consumers buy into eco-friendly brands for environmental reasons. When that motivation is lost, companies lose money.
Greenwashing inherently takes advantage of consumers. When consumers are looking for environmentally friendly products, they are usually willing to pay a little bit more for the cause. Greenwashing wastes consumers' money by collecting the eco-friendly premium on products that aren't actually any better for the environment.
Logically, greenwashing is also harmful to the environment. Companies dedicate so much time to capturing consumers' attention with greenwashed products that they eventually stop trying to improve their practices. They start focusing on other eco-friendly competition and ignore the bigger environmental problem at hand. Greenwashing doesn't just fail to protect the environment, it can actually make environmental sustainability worse.
Top 20 Commonly Greenwashed Products
While the list of greenwashed products could go on forever, here are the top 20 most commonly greenwashed products. Shop these products with a careful eye and check the label for misleading terms.
- Bottled Water
- Soft Drinks
- Petroleum Fuel
- Biofuel (Ethanol)
- Laundry Detergents
- Pet Food
- Paper products
- Household Cleaning Products
- Feminine Hygiene Products
- Breakfast Cereals
- Home Appliances
- Personal Care and Beauty
- Air Travel
Greenwashing in Hotels
The hotel industry is no stranger to greenwashing practices. In fact, this industry is notorious for deceptive greenwashing practices.
Many hotels encourage guests to shut off lights, turn off the air conditioning, and reuse linens to promote environmental sustainability. While this may seem like a noble cause, the hotels don't typically promote these habits for environmental purposes.
Instead, consumers are discovering that the motivation behind these requests is to simply save the hotel chain money. The hotels aren't necessarily interested in doing what is best for the environment. They are simply trying to lower their operating costs.
If hotels were truly interested in promoting green practices, they would be ditching the single-use toiletry items and promoting best practices that don't just benefit their bottom line. Studies show that consumer trust is violated by these deceptive greenwashing practices. So maybe they aren't so budget friendly for the hotel, after all?
There's no denying that the environmental sustainability movement plays a large part in consumer behavior. Companies are so eager to capture these profits that they are willing to greenwash their products. However, this deceptive marketing practice can do more harm than good. When consumers discover that they are paying premium prices without benefiting the environment, consumer trust is destroyed.
Do you shop for environmentally friendly products? Feel free to share your secrets to weeding out the bad apples below!