Greenwashing is the term given to companies who exaggerate their environmental credentials to draw in consumers. For example, saying that they use biodegradable packaging when it might not be the base, or having hidden trade offs and no proof of their claims. It is currently a very topical subject due to increased environmental awareness but raises ethical concerns.
A quick Google search of greenwashing examples retrieved 220 000 results and it has sadly been occurring since the 1960s, with the rise of petrol, oil and nuclear power companies making false environmental claims.
On a commercial level, a 2015 poll showed that 66% of consumers globally were willing to pay more for so-called “environmentally sustainable” products. This could be products claiming to be fresh and organic, or a company marketing itself as environmentally friendly or socially sustainable. I can say that I have fallen prey to this myself, as it feels like spending money ethically and mindfully.
One example I saw which I found very annoying was at the Hard Rock Café, where t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Save the Planet’ were sold, but plastic straws were in use. I just couldn’t understand the logic!
Some greenwashing tactics include using buzz words that will appeal to the consumer, with no real evidence to support them. If a product is labelled ‘certified organic’ there should be an agency logo on the packaging. For example, the red tractor logo means the product has been responsibly produced, usually in terms of animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection.
I recently came across an article on LinkedIn about the greenwashing tactics used in the FIFA 2022 World Cup, due to be hosted in Qatar. FIFA have pledged to deliver a carbon-neutral world cup, and used all the buzz words we like to hear, as well as aligning their plans with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, they have not given any concrete evidence or detail of which decarbonisation technologies will be used, or what targets they are setting for waste and water reduction. The SDGs are comprised of 17 broad goals, with many important sub-targets that need to be properly understood before nonsensical claims are made.
Another example of greenwashing is the blurry line between packaging that is compostable, biodegradable or recyclable, because most people will not understand, or be aware of, the strict definitions.
Within greenwashing also comes the term ‘wish-cycling’, where people recucle things that they think or hope can be recycled, but actually aren’t, like greasy pizza boxes. I think we might all be guilty of this! To address the confusion over compostable packaging, the resources charity WRAP release a guide this February, which you can view here.
It is important to remember that, although all compostable plastics are biodegradable, not all biodegradable plastics are compostable. The image below is a guide that distinguishes between biodegradable, which has no legal definition, and compostable, which means it will break down completely into non-toxic materials.
There’s no need to get too down about it though, there are plenty of ways you can avoid greenwashing, like by advising family and friends on the tactics used (or showing them this article!), and trying to be more sustainable as an individual. You might also enjoy this article on sustainable period products, or this one on the art of being eco-friendly.
It’s always better to support local business, like Shared Earth in York, which is the largest Fairtrade retailer of non-food products in the UK.They have a refill station (pictured), where you can refill your plastic bottles with shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, fabric conditioner and washing up liquid. They stock Ecoleaf, which has a repuation for being cruelty-free and made from natural ingredients derived from plant extracts. You can also get a loyalty card with a stamp for every £5 you spend refilling, just in case you weren’t already sold!
The take home message is that, whilst some companies do greenwash and make exaggerated claims, there is still plenty of ethical companies out there and you can easily make the decision to support them! For further information, I recommend joining your local Zero Waste group on Facebook, and following Chicks for Climate on Instagram for suggestions, statistics and to be involved with an environmental community that wants to make a difference. You can also join the WILD community on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for loads of information.
About the Author: Lauren Grindley is a third year Environmental Geography student interested in all environmental issues, with a current focus on the importance of nature reserves for mental and physical health.