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The Six Sins of Greenwashing

Being an ecologically conscious consumer is tough. It feels like there is an endless list of brands we need to avoid, or questions we need to ask. Luckily, there are more environmentally friendly products than ever before. The market for sustainable goods is expected to be about $150 billion by the end of 2021, up from $107 billion in 2014. While there is still a long way to go, it is extremely exciting to see so many businesses working to develop sustainable and low-emissions products.

Unfortunately, not all eco-friendly products are the same. Many companies will advertise products in a manner that is either misleading or dishonest. This practice is known as “greenwashing”. Consumers often can’t tell the difference between a product that is legitimately environmentally friendly or a marketing gimmick. 

To identify misleading environmental advertising practices, Terrachoice published a 2007 report titled The Six sins of greenwashing. Terrachoice analyzed thousands of products and grouped the examples of greenwashing into six buckets. By understanding these marketing strategies, you protect yourself from deceptive advertising and be a smarter consumer.

The Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off

Many products that are advertised as environmentally friendly, actually have a hidden environmental cost that isn’t shared. Trade-offs are part of life, but when a company plays up the benefits while ignoring any problems, it is very misleading.

Perhaps the most famous example of hidden trade-offs is organic farming. Organic food is marketed as better for the environment because they eliminate the use of synthetic inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, or antibiotics. While organic food does offer some environmental benefits, the big picture is more complicated. One analysis found that organic farming tended to lead to a higher impact on the local environment, and required far more land than conventional farming. While there is still active debate on the subject, it is clear organic agriculture is not simply “better for the environment” compared to the alternative.

According to the original Terrachoice report, the “Sin of the hidden trade-off” was by far the most common, with 57% of the examples of greenwashing following this strategy. This form of greenwashing is popular partly because the claims are true! It is entirely legal to claim that your product is made with all-natural ingredients, even if the manufacturing process emits ten-times more carbon dioxide.

It is also important to remember that trade-offs are sometimes fine. Take hydroelectricity versus coal power – hydroelectricity is a very low emissions form of power, but it also often requires disruption of natural habitats to build a hydroelectric dam. It is correct to say hydroelectricity is lower emissions than coal, but there is a hidden trade-off that should be acknowledged.

The Sin of No Proof

Environmental claims need to be backed by certification and science. Businesses can’t claim their products are “emissions-free” or “all-natural” without the proof. Many companies are reluctant to publicize their manufacturing process, but when they are making definitive environmental claims, they need to show their work.

Products that contain recycled material, or use sustainable ingredients often fall under this category. If a product does contain environmentally friendly materials, they should be able to verify that claim. Certification plays an important role here; check if there are any standards or certificates associated with the product, and see what they mean.

To ‘get away’ with unsubstantiated claims, companies will often mix this sin with the “Sin of Vagueness” to obscure what environmental claims are actually being made.

The Sin of Vagueness

Terms like “green” “environmentally-friendly” or “sustainable” don’t really mean anything. While they imply some environmental benefits, there is no strict standard for what they require. When companies advertise a “green” product but don’t clarify what that means, it is a form of greenwashing.

Fast fashion companies, such as H&M, and Zara, have been accused of using vague claims in marketing environmentally-conscious fashion lines. The fashion industry is a massive burden on the environment; the World Bank estimates the clothing and textile industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and 20% of wastewater. To satisfy customers who value environmental responsibility, outlets have begun to offer more sustainable products. In some cases, it wasn’t clear what standard they were using, meaning it was impossible to know how beneficial these products were.

The Sin of Irrelevance

Some environmental claims may be true, but simply don’t matter! The “Sin of Irrelevance” is aimed at products that advertise an obvious environmental feature. A good example is CFC-free products. CFCs have been banned for over 30 years, but you still see products advertising that they are CFC-free! While this may appear harmless, it creates the impression that the product is more environmentally friendly than the competition, when in reality they are the same.

The Sin of Less of Two Evils

Some product categories are just inherently hard on the environment. Large trucks, pesticides, airplanes – these all leave an extremely large footprint. Some companies will develop a product that is slightly more sustainable, and market it as “green”, ignoring that the base product is still really harmful. Imagine seeing a big SUV advertised as having 5% lower emissions compared to a competitor – yes, it is “better” than some alternatives, but that still doesn’t make it environmentally friendly!

One example of this form of greenwashing that attracted a lot of attention this summer was Burger King’s reduced methane beef. Announced in an advertisement featuring a young cowboy singing a song about methane gas, it explains that Burger King has developed a new diet for their cows that reduces methane emissions by 33%. While this is a decent improvement, critics have pointed out the overall carbon savings are quite modest.

Marginally improvements in an environmentally harmful product are simply not good enough!

Sin of Fibbing

Here, we are talking about straight lying. A company advertises its product are additive-free or contains no harmful chemicals, and it is simply not true. Relatively speaking, this form of greenwashing is fairly rare. Manufacturers are more likely to mislead rather than lie, particularly because lying leaves your company vulnerable to lawsuits.

That said, there are examples of companies making false environmental claims. One infamous example was Volkswagen’s scandal in 2015. It was discovered Volkswagen had been installing a device that made their vehicles appear to have lower emissions when undergoing testing. The whole situation likely cost Volkswagen billions of dollars. Currently, there are also several class-action lawsuits against MethodWindex, and Simple Green, where those filing the lawsuit claim the “non-toxic” labels are inaccurate.

Conclusion

As concern grows for the environment, expect more companies to offer environmentally conscious products. Along with that, we should expect to see new waves of deceptive and misleading marketing. Unfortunately, regulation has not caught up with the advertising practices of many businesses. To shop ethically, consumers need to think critically, ask smart questions, and do research. The sins of greenwashing are a great tool to start this path of inquiry.

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