Greenwashing means that you are sold something as “green” while not being so green in reality.
You walk into a store in search of a chocolate bar. You find you favorite brand and flavor, yet one of the bars on the shelf differs from the other. It has a small green leaf at the bottom of the package along a blurb claiming “sustainably sourced cocoa”. Feeling a little like a savior of the planet, you go for the bar with the leaf.
You may have just been greenwashed.
Greenwashing means that you are sold something as “green” while not being so green in reality. This may have to do with the manipulation of facts, selling you fiction. With an expanding range of sustainable products on offer greenwashing is increasingly a challenge for companies and consumers alike. How do you know you are buying a truly sustainable product? And how does a company make sure it is creating products that are really good for the planet?
Cases of car manufacturers manipulating emission tests and food producers using harmful “biodegradable” plastics are just a few examples. One study has found that 95% of evaluated products employed at least some form of greenwashing. The devil is usually in the details. One’s best bet is to recognize common greenwashing tactics and choose products that won’t fail the test.
Go for brands, not products
It is quite easy to find a car manufacturer with a lineup of fuel-powered cars and one electric model. Even easier is it to find a chocolate producer with two out of its 20 products having been sustainability certified. However, it’s much harder to find a company that sources 100% of its feedstock from certified suppliers and that has enacted positive environmental impact into its entire mission.
Companies that have all their products adhering to the highest sustainability standards mostly treat sustainability as something more than a competitive advantage. These mission-driven brands don’t just try to be green. They exist to make green the new normal and to spread this message across the world. Identify them by word of mouth, sustainability section on their website and absence of a single characteristic that makes you doubt.
While some global corporations like Unilever or Google are trying to change in this direction, quite often the best choice will fall at mid-sized companies that face fewer compliance risks, while can still ensure proper control of their supply chain. And if you want to be 100% certain – go for a local sustainable producer, the owner of which you can meet in person and go look at their factory to check everything with your own eyes.
Meanwhile, one can still leave some chance for the companies that fail the brand test, if they perform great on all the others.
Consider the lifestyle you are sold
Most companies want you to consume more and advertising themselves as sustainable is just one way they seek to achieve that. Other companies, though, may seek to do more by encouraging you to go greener.
They do this by caring about the whole lifecycle of the products they sell and the whole range of their environmental impacts. An example is Patagonia, which accepts used clothes to repair and resells them. By doing so, it encourages customers to avoid overconsumption. It also provides extensive information on proper care for clothes so they will last longer.
If a company is striving to help you make responsible choices without buying into the hype, it might be a reason to consider checking its products.
Are they telling the full story?
These days everyone can say “we are striving for highest sustainability standards” or “SDGs are at the core of our business.” Much harder, however, is to back up those words with real numbers. Don’t just look at what a company claims to be doing, look at how it supports those claims with proper data across the whole range of its impacts.
Still, is it telling you the full story with the numbers? Is there anything the company doesn’t say? The key here is to look into the consistency and transparency of a company’s overall efforts. Don’t get seduced by pledges to reduce emissions. Instead, look at whether a company discloses its overall emissions; for example at open databases.
Don’t take the “no palm oil has been used in this product” claim on faith, either. Instead study product contents as a whole. And it’s not just about a company’s latest initiative on cleaning up plastics but about the types of policies it has in place to prevent plastic waste in the first place. No hidden trade-offs or vague claims are a must for those that want to live up to the highest sustainability standards.
And if unsustainable practices are revealed, what is a company’s reaction? A polite disclaimer? A vague promise? Or a concrete change in policies and supply chains? Real transparency and responsive consideration of feedback are telling of the path chosen by a company.
Know the labels you trust
One of the simplest ways to verify the performance of a product is to look at the standards it adheres to. Some standards are more rigorous than others. Some verify the absence of toxic components, others ensure high sustainability performance of a product as a whole.
Still, there are standards with compliance concerns even though they are used by global brands. Some companies even invent their green-looking labels with little substance behind them, hoping this scheme will help them look better in consumers’ eyes.
The best choice is to invest a little time into research on credible standards and labels in each category of your interest.
And don’t forget about the package
Even with brands and labels you trust, you ought to consider packaging. In most cases, this will be an important signifier of how much a company truly cares about sustainability.
Even self-proclaimed leaders of sustainability struggle when it comes to packaging. No unnecessary packaging or packaging you can return, reuse and compost: these are signs a company is taking a holistic approach. One great case of such an approach is by Loop, which represents a collaboration between brands and suppliers to ensure the waste-free packaging of their goods.
What with all these issues to consider, you might it impossible to protect yourself from greenwashing, especially as some companies might not even know they are doing it. However, armed with foreknowledge you can always take more responsible choices… even in choosing your favorite chocolate.