Def: The word “greenwash’ is modeled on the word “whitewash”, and means to promote the idea that something (a company, product, policy, etc) is environmentally friendly, when in fact it is not.
Unfortunately a lot of companies are guilty of doing this – sometimes out of ignorance, but often as a marketing strategy to win over consumers who are genuinely concerned about the environment.
The problem with greenwashing is that it creates confusion about what is or is not environmentally responsible*. However, with this knowledge, you’ll soon be able to spot greenwashing with ease.
How to spot greenwashing
TerraChoice and the Underwriters Laboratories together defined the following 7 types of greenwashing (you can view their original website post, Sins of Greenwashing):
- Hidden trade off – claiming something is green because of one of its attributes, while ignoring other decidedly environmentally harmful attributes. Example: A paper that comes from a sustainable forest is great, but what about the paper making process, the use of chlorine for bleaching the paper, etc?
- No proof – a claim that does not have any proof to substantiate it. Example: A product that boasts it is BPA-free should provide evidence of this, such as making their studies available on their website.
- Vagueness – a claim that is so vague or poorly defined, it is meaningless. Example: “all natural” sounds good, but many naturally occurring substances are in fact very harmful to people and the environment, such as formaldehyde, arsenic and mercury.
- False labels – using made up labels to imply endorsement, when no such body or standard exists. Example: Putting a green leaf on something is often done to imply it is eco-friendly, while many other fake labels have also been created and used to convey the same idea.
- Irrelevance – a claim that while truthful is unimportant or unhelpful in deciding whether something is environmentally friendly. Example: CFC-free is a legal requirement, and all products should be CFC-free. But by putting this on the packaging, the implication is that this product is unusual in this feature.
- Lesser of 2 evils – a claim that is true, but ignores a bigger problem. Example: vaping instead of smoking cigarettes is often seen as a healthier option, but vaping is still unhealthy.
- Fibbing – claims that are simply false. Example: “chemical free” sounds great, but everything is made up of chemicals, good and bad. Other outright claims that are false also fall under this greenwashing sin.
Do you think you have a handle on greenwashing? Play ‘Name that Sin’ on Sins of Greenwashing and test your knowledge. The website also has some great additional resources that are worth checking out.
*As unethical as greenwashing is, TerraChoice’s 2010 The Sins of Greenwashing Report recommends consumers support products even if you suspect greenwashing: “Since most greenwashing is exaggeration rather than falsehood, you’re probably choosing a ‘greener’ product (it’s probably not as ‘green’ as it claims). And, every time you choose a ‘greener’ product, the market hears you say: ‘I like this. I want more green products. Please keep trying.’ (And the market will.)” This is, of course, if there is no genuinely green alternative available.