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Have You Been Greenwashed?

In support of the environment, people go out of their way to buy organic produce or products claimed to be manufactured as per organic standards. However, some companies mislead and convey false information about their products under the ‘organic or green’ label. One such concept adopted is known as greenwashing.


Greenwashing, also known as “green sheen”, is a sales tactic in which green marketing is deceptively used to influence buyers. Greenwashing is a play on the term ‘whitewashing’ which means to present misleading information to gloss over bad behaviour. In 1999, the word greenwashing was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Greenwashing examples are seen in marketing of food products, natural and alternative medicine, building material, and fossil fuel-based substances. Companies practising greenwashing persuade consumers that they use environmentally friendly products, have green aims and sound policies. It includes claims by an organization that their activities or policies are also ethical and sustainable when, actually, they are not. They assert their products are made from recycled material or have energy-saving benefits. Although some part of their claim might be true, however businesses engaged in greenwashing usually exaggerate in an attempt to misguide customers.

Understanding ‘Green’ Product Marketing Claims

Recently, quite a few of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, mostly conventional energy companies, have made attempts to rebrand as champions of the environment. In reality, their products are greenwashed through the process of rebranding, repackaging, or renaming. Such products might convey they are natural, more wholesome, even free from artificial substances, than their competitors but they are not.

At times green claims create a discrepancy between what consumers think ‘green’ means versus what businesses assert it to be. Some of the most commonly used green claims are: Biodegradable, Seals and certifications, Compostable, Recyclable, Made with renewable materials, Made with renewable energy, Nontoxic, Free of…, VOC free, Recycled, Ozone friendly, Less waste, Carbon offsets

The companies advertise either through press releases or via commercials showing off their pollution reduction efforts or flaunting use of clean energy. They may not be fully committed to following the green initiatives so their claims are unsubstantiated. To know more about green claims, visit Eartheasy.

Examples of Greenwashing

  1. A rug labelled with ‘50% more recycled content than before’. Here, the manufacturer must have increased recycled material from 2% to just 3% but it indicates to a consumer that a significant portion of the rug has recycled fibre.
  1. A plastic package contains a new shower curtain and is labelled ‘recyclable’. The manufacturer does not specify what actually is recyclable in the whole package. This label is thus, deceptive.
  1. A trash bag is labelled ‘recyclable’. These garbage bags are not separated from other trash at a landfill site or during incineration, so they are highly unlikely to be used again. This label is insincere yet again as it affirms an environmental benefit where no meaningful benefit exists.
  1. Bioplastics are often coalesced with biodegradable plastics but the terms are not exchangeable. Characteristics of bioplastics and chemical composition are identical to its petroleum-based counterpart, hence not environment friendly.
  1. Compared to the dirtiest fossil fuel i.e. coal, natural gas is only 50% as dirty. Fracking issues exist when producing the gas and if as little as 3% of the gas escapes, effects on climate change are almost equivalent as when burning coal. However, it is presented as cleaner fossil fuel.
  1. In the UK, Advertising Standards Authority, upheld many complaints against major car manufacturers who made erroneous claims about their vehicles.
  1. Environmental accounting can be used to pretend that ecological impacts of a business are reduced while they actually are on the increase.

US Federal Trade Commission Guidelines to Mark Greenwashed Products

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created the Green Guides in 1998. These guidelines define terms used in environmental marketing. In 2013, the FTC began enforcing revisions in the Green Guides. The revisions cover public input, and include hundreds of consumer and industry comments on previously proposed revisions. The updates also regard a new segment of “green” certifications and seals,  carbon offsets, and renewable energy and renewable materials claims.

To know you are not buying green-washed products, make sure to look out for these important parameters set by U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

  1. Qualifications and disclosures: Packaging and advertising should explain green claims in simple readable language.
  1. Distinction between benefits of product, package and service: Environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the packaging, just a portion of the product or the whole item.
  1. Overstatement of Environmental Attribute: Any product’s marketing claim should never overstate, by implication or directly, an environmental benefit.
  1. Comparative Claims: If a company claims its products’ benefit over the competition, the stated notion should be properly substantiated.

Buying organic and natural products is healthy but it’s better to fully comprehend what you are purchasing. Blindly following an advertisement or a high-profile brand does not make you responsible. Being aware is what makes you so.

Hence, it’s necessary to:

  1. Look for proof of green practices.
  1. Look out for USDA, APEDA or Green Seal certification. This will help identify which products are truly organic.
  1. Be beware of colour branding. Some companies use earth hues to imply an all-natural vibe.
  1. Not put your trust in mere slogans. Check ingredients to know more.
  1. Understand what going green mean and reading up on labels and certifications, farming practices and efficient manufacturing.
  1. Bypass the packaging and reading the label. Be aware of faux-branding.

Going green is not easy, now that consumers are being duped because of greenwashing. However, knowing what to buy and where to buy from, and checking labels can clarify the whole shopping process and help buyers make reasonable choices.

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