As more companies and businesses accept the reality of our climate crisis, there has been a movement towards sustainability. For some companies, becoming eco-friendly is a focus because they genuinely want to make a difference in the world. Many other companies, however, are simply following trends and trying to market themselves to environmentally-conscious consumers.
From a business perspective, it’s a strategy that makes sense, as roughly 70% of all North Americans prefer companies that are eco-friendly. That means, if you’re a company that is trying to boost sales or engagement, advertising yourself as “environmentally responsible” might be a good (though entirely unethical) strategy.
Unfortunately, this practice is common enough in the business world to have a proper name; greenwashing. Coined all the way back in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt, greenwashing is one of the most problematic green marketing tactics, mainly because it isn’t green whatsoever.
This article explores the depths of greenwashing and some steps you can take to avoid it! Whether you have your own company, work a 9-5, or just want to learn more about the various forms of greenwashing, keep reading to get an idea of what makes this practice such a big deal and why more companies might need to fix their marketing claims.
What Is Greenwashing?
You can probably guess what the basic concept is, but to get everyone on the same page, the official greenwashing definition states that it is:
“The expression of environmentalist concerns, especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.”
Simply put, it is the facade a company creates when they are trying to gain eco-conscious customers without actually being eco-conscious. You’ve probably already seen greenwashing without realizing it, as there are many levels of what greenwashing can look like. From possibly harmless appearance choices to factually inaccurate statements on products, a company can try a number of different ways to make you believe that they are working towards a cleaner Earth.
Greenwashing companies exist all around the world and across a vast number of industries, though some of the most common offenders are in the oil, automobile, and cleaning product industries.
So how do you recognize greenwashing when you see it? Unfortunately, it may be more complex than you realize, as a 2010 study of over 5,000 home and family products showed 95% of the companies involved in the study made false or inaccurate environmental claims. While the number has hopefully gone down in more recent years, that still leaves a lot of the market to account for.
As we mentioned before, the word greenwashing covers a wide variety of actions, and we won’t get through all of them in this article. However, the ability to recognize greenwashing companies can take time and effort, so we put together a shortlist of the most common greenwashing gambits to help you make some sense of it all.
One of the easiest ways greenwashing companies get you is through language, especially vague language. Even if something sounds like green marketing, it’s meaningless unless it can be backed up by facts. The next time you see “environmentally responsible” or “kind to Mother Earth” on a product, search elsewhere on the label to check for evidence.
More times than not, a company will find critical buzzwords that are designed to mislead consumers and slap them on a product to appear sustainable.
When you’re out shopping for cleaning supplies, how long do you take to examine the products you’re buying? Chances are, you don’t stop to read the labels of every product in the aisle, which is precisely what companies are counting on. Companies know that you’re not very likely to read every label you come across, so they will print pictures of rainforests and healthy environments to give the appearance of sustainability.
Though it might not be the most blatant greenwashing form, it can still convince a lot of people.
Vague language can help companies make green claims about their products, but they can also utilize the power of irrelevant information. This can be harder to spot because, in most cases, this form of greenwashing is closer to the truth than most. A good example could be found in the culinary world when the company Hunt’s (you’ve probably used their ketchup) claimed that all of their tomatoes were “GMO-free.”
This is a perfect example of a company finding a hot topic (GMO food) and trying to use environmental marketing to their advantage. The only problem is that GMO tomatoes don’t exist in the first place. So while their “green claims” aren’t false, necessarily, they are utterly irrelevant to the product and therefore greenwashing.
To stop you or your business from greenwashing, there are a few simple things you can pay attention to. Naturally, people still make mistakes, and unintentional greenwashing can happen, but following these steps should help keep greenwashing out of your work!
Show As Much As You Can
If you are truly making sustainable products with an actual environmental benefit, then show your proof! You can do this by getting third-party certifications from legit companies or spelling out your process with complete transparency. The more you can show your customers, the better.
Tell Your Story
If your company is in the center of particular environmental issues, make sure you explain how your company relates to it. For instance, if you are selling environmentally friendly coffee, you should explain the significance of that within your industry! Show the steps you have taken to make green products and how your company handles the environmental impact you’re making.
Do Your Research
Avoiding greenwashing can often be as simple as doing basic research. A great place to start this process is through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and their guide on Environmental Claims. There, they address topics from greenhouse gas emissions to carbon offsets and everything in between. Before you make any claims regarding your company, check if they go against anything in the FTC outlines!
A Greener Supply Chain
At Manifest Commerce, we’re working to end greenwashing and bring a greener future to the world of eCommerce! By flipping shipping practices on their head and using sustainable practices up and down the supply chain, we are transforming the way you ship and receive your packages.