Everything You Need to Know About Greenwashing
Updated January 2019
With the rising trend to go green, companies and marketers are scrambling to put eco-friendly buzzwords on their products and services. “BPA free,” “biodegradable,” “natural,” and “non-toxic” are some of the many phrases that you might see on your products. Companies are also adopting “greener” names with earth-friendly colors. The increase in these changes has also led to more instances of false eco-labeling, also known as “greenwashing.” For example, in 2012, Mazda faced criticism for advertising their car as “Certified Truffula Tree Friendly” when they are not tree-friendly.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Greenwashing is present when more money is spent on marketing and advertising claiming to be “green” than on making business decisions that minimize environmental impact.
A classic example is a hotel chain that claims it is “green” because it allows guests to reuse the same sheets and towels, but does little to save water and energy throughout its facilities and its vehicle fleet.
Why is Greenwashing Bad?
Everything and everyone is going “green” these days. As a response to consumer demand for more environmental and ethical products, car companies, banks, airlines, restaurants, retailers, and more are all adjusting their practices. However, many businesses are trying to find the easiest way to look “green” when there are many other impactful changes they can make to help the environment.
Greenwashing takes advantage of hurried consumers, who want to purchase environmentally friendly products, but don’t have the time to investigate each product they buy thoroughly. Consumers will spend more money to buy products that they believe are eco-friendly but don’t actually help the environment.
Sometimes greenwashing creates a domino effect. For example, a property manager wants to get a LEED certification (a green building certification dispensed by the U.S. Green Building Council) for her building so she can attract high paying tenants. She buys AC units that are falsely advertised as environmentally friendly and installs them. At the same time, she managed to get some tenants who want to operate in a LEED certified building. Unfortunately, LEED doesn’t approve of those AC units, so she loses out on those tenants and has to replace the light fixtures to qualify for LEED. Bottom line, greenwashing harms the environment because it encourages consumers to purchase products and services that don’t actually help the environment.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Here are a few tips so you and others don’t get greenwashed:
1. When looking at a green ad, see if the company is known for being eco-friendly. Is it easy to find information on the company’s sustainable business practices?
2. Search the company name with the word “environment” and see the search results. If there are any consumer and environmental advocates complaining about the company, watch out!
3. Trust your gut feeling! Does it seem real, or is it fake?
4. Look for certifications and labels! Sometimes greenwashers will make their own fake certifications. If you haven’t heard of it, look it up. Here are examples of real certifications: USDA approved organic, LEED certified green buildings, Green Seal products and services, and EPEAT certified green electronics.
Look Out for These Common Greenwashing Examples
- Airlines who claim their smaller jets emit fewer carbon emissions. These emissions are being emitted regardless of plane size!
- Toys that say they’re BPA, non-toxic, and lead-free. Unfortunately, these toys are made from other potentially harmful chemicals. Think about packaging too.
- Foods that say “organic.” Foods like meat can claim they’re organic, but may only be 80% organic. Make sure to read labels and look for “100% organic.”
- Despite tech companies promoting their eco-friendly products, updating older products with their latest software might be impossible, leading consumers to throw them away in favor of new electronics. This promotes the electronic waste crisis we’re currently in!
This is not to say that all companies branding themselves as environmentally friendly are making false claims. For example, here at GreenCitizen, not only do we have an eco-friendly name, we are also a certified B-Corporation and only work with R2 and e-Steward certified recyclers so e-waste is properly processed and not exported out of the country.
For more information about greenwashing and how you can avoid it, give us a call at (650) 493-8700 or stop by our Burlingame EcoCenter today!
Guest post by GreenCitizen Summer Intern Daryl Zhao
James Kao is the founder/CEO of GreenCitizen, which provides products and services that help make every day Earth Day. He’s passionate about data and sustainability, with a deep background in launching, funding, and managing successful tech companies. James enjoys spending quality time with his family, hiking, traveling, watching well-made documentaries, and eating good healthy food. read more »