Every day, more and more companies “go green.” Nearly every business of every size is doing it, from building owners to car manufacturers, restaurants to retailers. While being green is great for the environment, “greenwashing” is an incredibly unhealthy practice — for both businesses and our planet.
What is greenwashing? If the term “whitewashing” comes to mind, you’re heading in the right direction. Whitewashing has been around for decades as “a coordinated attempt to hide unpleasant facts in a political context.” Greenwashing is the same idea, but in an environmental context.
Basically, greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money promoting their “green” lifestyle through marketing and advertising than actually implementing practices that minimize harmful environmental impact.
Greenwashing is more prevalent than many consumers realize. For example, a grocery store may call itself “green” because they’ve replaced some of their plastic bags with reusable “green” bags for purchase. Although they offer this more environmentally friendly alternative to customers, the store might actually do very little to save energy and water — which could have a much greater impact on the environment. Those bags represent only a speck of the likely not-so-green company. Appliances, lighting, refrigeration, kitchens where bakery items and to-go foods are made, etc. might still carry or emit vast amounts of harmful substances.
So why do companies greenwash? Well, it isn’t always clear, but it’s likely because they’re facing an increasing amount of pressure from stakeholders to be more sustainable. Ironically, one of the biggest risks a company faces when greenwashing is being outed by consumers or stakeholders for promoting the company to be more “green” than it actually is. Studies have shown that companies that do nothing to be green are favored over companies that greenwash.
Here are a few tips for avoiding greenwashing practices in your company and detecting them in others:
1. Do some detective work.
Look beyond the advertisements. Read ingredient labels, find out what products contain and how they work. Ask employees about their environmental impact and commitment as a company. Use apps such as the GoodGuide to check environmental, ethical and health information on products by scanning the barcode.
2. Find the “sustainable” stamps of approval.
Look for labels that show a reliable third-party certification. According to TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, “no proof” is the most common way companies greenwash. Going back to the example of a grocery store, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Certified Organic label can only be used on products that meet the federal government’s organic standard. Just because a label says “all-natural” or “made with organic ingredients” does not mean the product is Certified Organic, so be sure to look beyond the initial packaging. You can check ecolabels you don’t recognize in the Ecolabel Index, which tracks more than 400 ecolabels in 197 countries, providing information on which company or group is behind each certification and if an independent third-party assessment is required.
3. Make it easy for customers.
As a marketer, be clear when making claims; don’t just throw a “green” or “eco-friendly” onto packaging or put some grass in an ad. Make sure the claim reflects a real, significant environmental impact. Be specific about whether the claim refers to the product, packaging, service, company practice, or life cycle. Consult the FTC Green Guides to understand how to use certain terminology such as “sustainability” or “carbon-free” and ensure that your claims are compliant. Make it easy for customers to check into your claims with citations and data. Provide a link to the company’s published sustainability report or a case study demonstrating the process and achieved or anticipated outcome. Don’t make customers spend too much time hunting for the truth, make it easy for them to trust you.
In summary, greenwashing is not only harmful to the environment, but to a company’s reputation. If someone is going to claim their products, policies or goals are green, they really better follow through. Otherwise they’re at risk of raising a red flag to potential customers, competitors and regulatory agencies.