In today’s increasingly climate-conscious world, brands and businesses across the corporate board have adopted some form of the word “sustainable” in their marketing. Whether that be an “eco-friendly” clothing collection, a “cleaner” diesel for our vehicles, or even “environmentally responsible” travel agencies, companies everywhere appear to have endorsed all things green and sustainable.
On the surface, this progressive shift to environmentally concerned marketing can be considered especially positive. Combining the changes in consumer preferences to greener living that influenced these marketing trends and the likely top-down decisions to align a business model with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, the transition to an ecologically conscious style of advertising reflects a much wider trajectory of global responsibility.
Yet, although this greener corporate narrative certainly calls for some optimism, it remains regrettable that still so many of these sustainability claims are laced with little more than illusive lies. Known widely as “greenwashing” – a form of misleading marketing designed to convince a consumer that a product, service, or organization is greener than it truly is – eco-deception is becoming increasingly prevalent, making it harder to distinguish between businesses we can trust and those we cannot.
In the guide below, we have designed an essential three-step method to help you steer you through the storms of greenwashing claims and reduce your environmental impact.
A Three-Step Guide to Avoiding Greenwashing
Step 1: Decipher your shade of green – and commit to it.
In the same way that we all exhibit our own place on the political spectrum, we each adopt and lean toward our own shade of green. On one extreme, a die-hard activist or deep ecologist might prefer to commit their life to the principles of need or sufficiency, whilst on the other, the less climatically concerned may choose to indulge in a life led by opulence and excess.
Many of us today likely fall somewhere around the center. Maybe we think of ourselves as pretty eco-conscious. We do our best to minimize our environmental impact by recycling, taking public transport, or shifting to a more plant-based diet. But still, in the consumer-crazed world that we live in, temptations to splash out on new clothing items, beauty products, or foreign holidays remain (to say the least) a little irresistible.
The powerful persuasion to keep spending on consumer products like these is a feeling we know all too well. But while it is okay to indulge from time to time, it is essential for our planet’s future that we buy from the brands and businesses that are either not damaging the environment at the minimum – or are contributing to the climate solution at the optimum.
That said, we also know that it can feel like one person, in one place, buying the right thing or avoiding the wrong thing, will not do much to help the environment crisis – but this is the exact mindset that destructive and less-conscious businesses want you to stay in. In fact, the more people that remain in this mentality, the harder and the slower the transitions to sustainability will be.
So, while it is true that one person’s decisions will not do a whole lot to influence big business to take the environment seriously, when multiplied to the millions across cities, countries, and eventually the rest of the world, the power of consumers can become sensational. To give one example, a more-than-30-percent shift in consumer preferences to plant-based diets in Europe has now resulted in lines of vegan and vegetarian items occupying their own aisles across food stores. As the saying goes, there really is strength in numbers.
So, after this little conscious pep talk, ask yourself: what are your eco-values today? What environmental problems are concerning you the most, and where do you want to draw your climate line? Maybe it’s single-use plastics in packaging (a hard one to avoid, but it is possible!), the addition of toxic chemicals or the use of animal testing for your cosmetics, fast-fashion brands that use gallons upon gallons of water, or butchers that use highly carbon-intensive farming techniques. Decipher your shade of green and, inevitably, you’ll feel empowered to commit to it.
Step 2: Beware of greenwashing brands – they’ll try to blindside you
With the sense of empowerment that comes from your chosen eco-values, it can feel easier to navigate the seas of sustainability claims. But beware of brands that’ll still try to blindside you.
In a world where greenwashing has become the norm rather than the exception, the terms “sustainable,” “natural,” “conscious,” “responsible,” “organic,” “free-from,” “upcycled,” “recycled,” and, of course, anything with the term “green” in it, are littered quite literally everywhere. They are slung within the shop fronts of fashion stores, stamped along the sides of our beauty products, and now appear ubiquitously across the websites of world-leading travel companies.
Such eco-sounding language can appeal to the eyes of the sustainable-hearted, but sadly, so many of these claims are merely buzzwords filled with falsities. Buzzwords operate a little like fast fashion – they come in one minute and leave just as rapidly the next. But the climate crisis, unlike bi-weekly clothing trends, is here to stay.
The key to identifying a buzzword’s validity will stem entirely from the company’s transparency. If the data behind the claim is listed somewhere in either the undetectable fine print – or actually invisible in their sustainability report, for that matter – it’s most likely to be false and an attempt at deception.
So the next time you see a brand – let’s say a fast-fashion company that proclaims it’s “conscious” – ask how? What does the use of the word mean, and what solid evidence can they provide to back it up? How far away is the brand from becoming zero-waste or carbon-neutral? If it’s just an aspiration or is not likely to be achieved until later this century, it’s most likely still causing significant environmental impact and should be worth avoiding.
If it seems difficult to locate any of these facts, also try to spot out the brand’s parent company. Seven largely unsustainable companies own 182 of the planet’s beauty brands. Just a few clothing conglomerates run the entirety of the fast-fashion show while ten vastly unethical food and beverages businesses dominate almost all of the world’s supply. Parent companies can often be hidden somewhere near the bottom of a brand’s website, and if not, it’s always worth a quick google-search. One brand doing something better within an immensely large company doing a whole lot worse is unfortunately still not good enough.
Lastly, another subtle but more visually stimulating greenwashing trick is the use of idyllic imagery. Flowers trailing from a fuel nozzle, deep green leaves on shampoo and conditioner containers, ocean waves or ice-capped mountains on a plastic water bottle. This simple and terribly compelling greenwashing advertising technique is a powerful one. But ask yourself: Does it make sense, or is this just totally counterintuitive? If the product is made from fossil fuel, including single-use plastic, avoid it – forever and always.
So, step 2 to avoid falling victim to greenwashing: Beware of brands and their buzzwords, question their transparency, spot out the hidden parent company, and use your intuition to counter idyllic imagery.
Step 3: Question if you really need it – and always try to minimize
If a company has made it through the greenwashing test so far, hats off because it’s really not so easy these days. There is still, however, one final point of concern that even the most ecologically good-willed amongst us ought to take into consideration: do we really need it?
No matter how great the eco-credentials of a company appear to be, there is still a significant chance that it’s causing damage to something, somewhere. A good example of this is the tourism industry. As subsectors, the increasingly sustainable, responsible – or even regenerative – types of tourist destinations have come under scrutiny for greenwashing.
The elephants in the room? The long-distance flights required to meet exotic destinations and the increasing widespread application of false sustainability claims (see step 2).
The environmental impact of flights is not something that can be ignored – there is no way to circumvent it. But tourism can be – and from many of our resorts, it is – an incredible force for good. The wealth redistribution from the developed world to some of the planet’s most remote and forgotten locations is significant for generating social impact. Without tourism, many of these places may not have been granted opportunities for employment, education, or infrastructure construction unless through an international development agency. So, with flights and your holidays, question whether you really need it, choose a truly sustainable destination, and always try to minimize the number of long-haul journeys you take in a year. For one final saying, it’s not about the quantity but the quality.