How can you know if a brand cares about the planet or is just greenwashing? In this episode, I discuss the 7 signs!
Hello and welcome to everyday ethical, a podcast about all of the small ways that we can be more sustainable, without the pressure to be perfect.
I’m your host Bethany Austin and I’m an ethical lifestyle blogger who talks about everything from slow styling to cruelty-free cleaning.
Picture this: You buy a product that claims to be the epitome of all things kind to the earth and animals, only to get home and realise that it is, in fact, just as polluting, contains hidden plastic and isn’t cruelty-free. We’ve all been there, myself included. So, in today’s episode, I’m going to be talking about greenwashing and how to spot when a company are pretending to be more ethical than they are.
Let’s dive in.
Eco-friendly living is trendy. And I don’t say that in a “oh, you like eco-friendly living? Name five of their songs!” sort of way, nor in a cynical “this is all going to be out of fashion in 3 months” sort of way. Because, I actually think that ethical living becoming more trendy, ya know, a bit more mainstream, is a great thing. What else could we as advocates for being kind to the earth want more than a butt tonne of people joining us, right?
More people caring about the earth can only be a good thing. It means more people aware of their plastic waste, their pollution and getting angry at how slow governments are acting in the face of climate change. If recent events show us anything it’s that we’re powerful in numbers. Protestors like Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Planet have literally caused whole cities to come to a standstill and listen. And the Uk parliament, following extinction rebellion protests, has declared a state of climate emergency.
So more and more people are caring.
Unfortunately though, something becoming more popular does make the ears of big businesses men and women prick up. “A chance for me to make more money, you say? I’m in.”
BUT, as most of you will probably know, manufacturing eco-friendly and ethical products often costs more money. Polluting factory processes, for example, might be cheaper than green ones. Using plastic instead of glass might save a company a butt tonne of cash.
Whilst a lot of businesses have seen the recent rise in consumer demand for eco products, they’ve also probably crunched the numbers and worked out how much more it will cost them to actually meet those demands. So, for some, the logical option seems to be to capitalise off the green living trend, whilst not actually changing, well, anything.
Now, obviously I’m not in the board meetings for these huge corporations, so I couldn’t possibly say if that’s what they’re trying to do, but that’s certainly how it seems to be, as someone who has frequently bought products, only to realise they’re not as good as they seem.
That’s greenwashing. Investopedia say that, “Greenwashing is conveying a false impression that a company or its products are more environmentally sound than they really are.”
That can include misleading the customer is a whole host of ways, from packaging and labels to adverts on TV.
But how can we actually know when a company is environmentally sound and when it’s pretending to be? It’s definitely a tricky one and, as I said, I’ve fallen prey to greenwashing many a time. However, know that I’m a bit further in my journey I’ve got pretty good at spotting an eco-fraud. I’ve realised that there are some pretty common ways to spot a greenwashing company. Obviously, I’m going to share them with you today, so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes as I did!
So, the first way to spot greenwashing is to keep an eye out for vagueness. Mainly vague claims that seem to be founded in absolutely no evidence and have just been slapped on as decoration and not to convey any real information. For example, when companies say things like “we use recycled materials where possible”. Come on, what does that mean? Does that mean that they go to the ends of the earth to use recycled materials in all of their products? Well, no, because if they were using them wherever physically possible, they would be using them in every bit of their packaging. Instead, this vague claim allows them to put on their eco-warrior badge, use recycled plastic in, like, one bottle of their million-item range of cleaning products and then say that that’s all that’s “possible” for them, since it’s such a subjective statement.
Does that make sense? Other examples are things like “green factories”, “earth-friendly” or “pure”. What does that MEAN? Tell me the stone cold facts about how your product is better for the planet and maybe I’ll believe you.
So, basically, just keep an eye out for claims that don’t use specific facts, numbers, percentages or ingredients as evidence for them.
If they’re being vague, they’re probably on board the BS train and just looking to sell products.
One thing that goes hand in hand with vagueness is a lack of transparency, which is another key indicator of companies greenwashing. For example, if we go back to that term “green factories”, but a company has no information on their labels or on their websites about where their factories are, any pictures, info on what type of energy they use, what their working conditions are like, literally anything, then the chances are they’re probably not all that “green”. Because, trust me, if a company has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into creating a factory that i, I don’t know, run completely on solar power, they WILL tell you about it. They’ll be shouting it from the bloody rooftops.
So, if a claims to be eco-friendly but its supply chain isn’t massively transparent, if you can’t understand what the labels even mean or if you don’t know where or how the product was made, it could be because that company has something to hide. I call greenwashing!
Whilst trying to spot a greenwashing company, also be wary of them making one single environmental claim so that they can then do everything else without giving a single shit for the planet, without anyone realising. For example, they might put a tonne of emphasis on the fact that their packaging is biodegradable, without talking about what’s inside the packaging. Is the product itself biodegradable? Are the chemicals in it bad for marine life? You get the idea.
Emphasising one eco aspect of a product, probably means that they haven’t got much else to shout about.
Another key part of this is to look at is all of a company’s products as a whole. For example, let’s say a company makes a whole load of baby wipes. Different sizes, different smells, blah blah blah. They’re non-biodegradable, they’re not cruelty-free and their factories are massively polluting. If they came out with one single range of products that focused on being “natural” and that used a load of green and brown packaging to make the products look a bit earthy, you just have to look at their other products to know they are anything but eco-friendly. Sure, the marketing might be trying to convince you otherwise but it’s pretty easy to see that they don’t have mother nature at the heart of what they do.
Similarly, look out for parent companies, too. As I said, the recent rise in demand for eco-friendly products might mean that companies want to cater more to the eco-friendly customer. However, even if they do create a brand that is much more earth-friendly, you are still ultimately giving your money to a company that for the most part isn’t eco-friendly. A brand may use recycled packaging and be cruelty-free, but they might also be owned by a company that pours nuclear waste directly into the sea. I mean, probably nothing that intense, but you get what I’m saying. If you want to avoid promoting harmful practices, then do a basic google of who owns each brand you buy. You might be surprised by some of the infamous eco brands and who they’re actually owned by.
Just a second ago I also mentioned packaging. Now, as someone who works in marketing – did you know that about me? I’m actually a digital marketer – I know the power that design and marketing materials can have. Even something as basic as greens and neutral tones being used on those things can subconsciously evoke within you the sense that they are natural and safe. In reality, they might be anything but though! Also, I’ve seen some companies use natural-look fibres for thei packaging when, in reality, it’s just plastic made to look like, I dunno, bamboo or hemp, for example.
So another way to spot greenwashing is to take a look for packaging that makes a product seem eco-friendly and then to assess whether they actually claim to be doing good for the planet anywhere else. Or are they just trying to appeal to your subconscious!
This next one really makes me laugh because it proves just how desperate companies are to make themselves look superior to their competitors in terms of their environmental impact. I’ve seen a shocking number of cases where companies just make completely Irrelevant claims on their packaging. By that, I mean emphasising that a product doesn’t contain a certain ingredient, for example, when that ingredient is already illegal or just wouldn’t ever be used in the product anyway. Like saying “palm oil-free” in a product that doesn’t contain ANY oil at all. It’s just blatantly a case of wanting to seem like you’ve put the effort in, when you’ve done nothing.
The way to avoid companies like this is to look out for “free from” claims and then to just have a quick google around what that ingredient or material is, and how much of a big deal it is or isn’t that a company don’t have it as a part of their product.
Finally and one of the big ones to keep an eye out for when trying to avoid greenwashed products: Fake certification. Now, I don’t mean products that pretend to be officially certified because I’d imagine that that’s pretty hard to do without getting caught, although I’m sure it does happen from time to time. I mean, products that create their own little logos or icons that look like certification stamps, but are actually just something they got their graphic designer to whip up. So, for example, there are a few different official bodies that can certify a product as organic here in the UK. One of the big ones is Soil Association Certification. If you see that label (I’ll pop it in the show notes if you want to see it!) then you know something is organic. However, some products might only contain one organic ingredient, and the company could label themselves as “organic”, creating their own little symbol that looks like official certification.
To avoid companies that greenwash in this way, learn the official governing bodies for all of the eco concerns that you have and only trust their specific certification.
So, those are all of my top tips for how to avoid greenwashed products and what exactly you can look out for whilst browsing the shelves. If you take anything away from this episode, let it be this: Always be suspicious. Never trust how a product first seems and, where possible, do a bit of background research before buying. If their practices, materials and ingredients aren’t easily accessible either online or on the packaging, avoid the product!
Before I head off, I know that that was a lot to take in, so let’s re-cap the key ways to tell that a company is greenwashing a product:
- Vague claims that have absolutely no evidence
- Lack of transparency
- Whether they have just one green product among a sea of other products that aren’t eco-friendly
- Whether they have a parent company that aren’t eco
- If their packaging is geared towards looking natural, but the company itself is anything but
- Irrelevant claims about ingredients or materials that don’t even matter in the context of the product
- And finally, fake certification labels
I know that it’s a scary world out there and that it can be super easy to fall into the greenwashing trap so one thing I will say is to not beat yourself up if you do buy a product and then it turns out not to be as good as it seems. I’ve totally been there. Just use the product and, where possible, don’t buy it again. They’re very clever at tricking us, and sometimes you’re gonna fall for it!
I hope though, that this episode has made you a bit more aware of how to spot greenwashing in your everyday life so that you can avoid companies that do it as much as you can.
If you learnt something new, I would LOVE it if you could share with the online world that you’re listening to this episode, by taking a screenshot and popping it on your Instagram stories. I’m @bethanypaigeaustin, which I’ll pop in the show notes so that you can tag me, and you can also use #EverydayEthical so that everyone in this community sees your post, too. I would love to connect with you and be inspired by any eco changes you’re making, big or small!
Plus, if you want more people to learn about greenwashing, be sure to leave a glowing review of this podcast on iTunes so that more people are likely to click on and give it a listen.
I hope you all have a lovely rest of your week and I’ll speak to you soon.