What is Greenwashing? (and how to avoid it!)

Greenwashing is a term that I’ve come to know, love… and hate over the last couple of years. Greenwashing is the act of marketing a product as “environmentally friendly,” painting a warm picture of ecological goodness when in reality, it couldn’t be further from it. According to a report by  TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, 98% of “green-labelled” products are not environmentally friendly at all, many of them using the same destructive processes and ingredients as their non-green washed competitors.

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in the grocery store, looking at two different packages of bacon (not that we eat it, I was just one of those daydreams) and realising that one was labelled “natural, no nitrate, no hormones — ever” and the other was just plain bacon. The one labelled as “natural” was significantly higher in price. As I do, when I’m at the grocery store, I decided to compare ingredients. I found that there was nothing different between these two packages of bacon — even the nutritional label was identical.

While this isn’t technically “greenwashing” as it concerns the environment, it is an example of deceptive marketing used to sell more product through misleading packaging, tricking you into buying something more expensive because it’s “healthier” or more “eco-friendly.” This led me down a rabbit hole of research to find a lot of interesting information, specifically about green-washed bacon. Something that is inherently not healthy, economically friendly OR “green” should never be labelled so. I did some research on the company that manufactured this specific brand of “green-washed” bacon. The farm that produces this bacon employs the use of factory farms, which of course, are not eco friendly.

I did some reading and was shocked to hear how much extra money people spend on products they think are natural or eco friendly because they are trying to be more conscious consumers. I decided to put together a small list of examples and some tips on how to avoid greenwashing, but first, here is a list of the most common ways products are green-washed:

  1. Environmental Imagery

    This is most common, when a product has images of leaves, trees, greenery, the sky etc. Most truly environmentally friendly and natural products have very minimal packaging if none at all.

  2. Misleading Labels

    Ever seen something that is labelled as “100% natural” or organic in the title of the product? Many companies are able to put that on their packaging without any further information or certification. If you’re concerned about true organic and natural products, know the ingredients in your products and make sure it’s certified organic. “No Sugar Added” doesn’t mean there’s no sugar in the product, “wholegrain” doesn’t mean it’s nutritious, and “lite” doesn’t exactly mean it is free of large amounts of fat and sugar.

  3. Irrelevant Claims and Information

    Some companies advertise with “No chemicals (or specific chemical) used” when those chemicals are technically banned in the countries or for the products produced. This is common with “not tested on animal” labels, but if the product is manufactured in countries like China, that doesn’t matter because label laws are different in those countries, and companies in China regularly test on animals. It’s also important to research the parent company of the products you’re buying. You may be purchasing a “natural” brand that is owned by Coca-Cola; which should raise questions about how natural your product actually is.

  4. Trade-Offs

    Many companies in 2019 are using the label “sustainable” or “conscious” to encourage consumers to be more encouraged to buy their products, even if they are known as a not-so-conscious brand. H&M which is known for massive textile pollution and awful manufacturing conditions now has a conscious line to try and put up the act of being green. Any company who is genuinely green will happily share more on their working conditions, environmental impact and emissions.

So how can we avoid Greenwashing?

Know your products.

Something I’ve been focusing on lately is being sure that I know exactly what I’m buying. Knowing whether buying $24.99/pound fair trade cashews is a necessary purchase when I can get regular organic cashews from the US for $7.99/pound (for the record, fair trade cashews aren’t technically necessary if you can find local nuts that are organic. Cashews are sprayed with awful chemicals so fair trade means they are safe for the people working to harvest and produce them. I can get organic cashews that are local so I don’t need to buy fair trade. Interesting read here.).

If you’re buying certain nuts, you should know which regions of the world introduce child labour to harvest, which chemicals are used to treat etc. Example, Hazelnuts from most regions of the world are considered and said to be harvested my underage children in pretty awful conditions. However, if you can find Oregon Hazelnuts, you should choose those over imported hazelnuts. It’s a lot of work to know each product you’re buying, but if you’re ever unsure if you should choose fair trade/organic or “conventional,” a quick internet search can give you a better answer. This is the same with chocolate, coffee beans, avocados and cotton and many more products.

Avoid big name brands.

It’s likely that brands that produce soft drinks are not going to be willing or able to produce truly healthy drinks. Research the parent company of the product you’re looking for and see if it’s linked to a large corporation that is known for big business or unhealthy products.

Local is best.

If you can find an alternative for your product that’s local instead or being imported, it’s likely better. Knowing food standards in your local area or country are much easier than trying to understand what countries like China or India allow in their products; when we import those, we would THINK they have to abide by US standards but that’s not always the case.

Know the INGREDIENTS.

If you can’t pronounce or identify the ingredient in your item, you should probably move on. Most ingredients can be disguised with other names so know your ingredient nicknames.

Look for legitimate Certification.

If you want organic, find certified organic. “Cruelty-free” should have an animal rights certification. Understand what it takes to pass certain certificates that classify natural and eco-friendly products, and you’ll be much more likely to avoid falling into these traps.