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Greenwashing in a nutshell: What it is, how to avoid it


Ever find yourself wandering around your local Target or another favorite retail store and find products that have labels with words and phrases such as “100% organic,” or “made with natural or recycled materials”? 

These are prime examples of what is formally known as greenwashing, or as defined by Merriam-Webster, “expressions of environmentalist concerns especially as a cover for products, policies, or activities.” 

We are going to offer a bit more insight into what greenwashing is, how to spot and avoid it and how some of your favorite lifestyle brands might be unknowingly getting away with it.

The concept of greenwashing is designed around the idea that companies and the products they create are more sustainable than they actually are. In turn, this leaves consumers feeling even more confused about what brands they should actually purchase from.

More money is spent by these companies on attempting to advertise themselves as environmentally friendly, rather than taking initiative to actually reduce their environmental impact.

Some notable brands guilty of greenwashing include Tide with their “plant-based” detergent pods, Windex household cleaners, a variety of makeup brands whose products are made of “clean ingredients,” Nestle’s “ethically-sourced” cocoa beans, Charmin toilet paper and vehicle producers like Volkswagen, BMW, Ford and Mercedes-Benz. 

These examples just scratch the surface of corporations that resort to greenwashing to sell their products.

Companies use a multitude of different tricks and loopholes to promote their products. One way is by suggesting that a product is “eco-friendly,” based on one attribute such as being made from recycled materials, without paying attention to more pressing environmental issues like the energy and resources it took to make the product, global warming, etc. 

These claims are not necessarily false, however, they only pinpoint one aspect of the product.

Additionally, companies may make environmental claims without making the information behind said claims on the public record. Claims are poorly outlined and are vague and hard for the average customer to understand. As previously mentioned, companies may make claims that are truthful, but oftentimes they are not pertinent and push consumers away from finding what might truly be the “greenest” option for a product.

Unfortunately, there are some companies that will make entirely false claims, such as being “certified organic” without actually having the certifications or a product that is packaged in what is supposed “100% recycled paper,” when in reality it is plastic.

Companies may not necessarily try to be malicious in their intent when greenwashing their products, but rather are eager to sell their products. Different consumer retail trends have illustrated a correlation between products advertised as being sustainable or eco-friendly and increased sales for products.

While this may seem like a lot of information to try and keep in mind when trying to shop for sustainably sourced and produced products, consumers have the ability to hold companies that greenwash accountable for their misinformation. Everyday shoppers have the power to push companies towards more sustainable initiatives.

As a collective, consumers can call these companies out and pressure them into creating truly sustainable products, while in turn also changing their own consumption habits and environmental actions to support more sustainable options. 

Moreover though, on an individual level, there are also ways that you can spot greenwashing whilst browsing the aisles of your favorite stores. 

Double-check the official websites of the companies you purchase your products from, and you will most likely find information that is only presented in a fine-print manner, and that is not being advertised properly on shelves. 

See if the information about a product is substantial, or if there are viable sources backing up claims made by the company about their product(s). To go even further, consider if the claims made by companies seem too good to be true. Do you think the company actually follows through with the claims or aligns its products with its mission statement?

Lastly, and probably the simplest advice: go with your gut. If a product seems extremely misleading in its advertisements, it probably is.

By starting small and putting in just a little more effort to analyze the products you buy, you will be able to notice a difference in the kinds of products you buy and the brands you choose to buy from. 

It may feel like extra work to examine the products you buy under such scrutiny, but being able to identify greenwashing by companies allows a deeper understanding of sustainability. It also will help you be a better consumer overall. 

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is be informed. Having more insight into the products that you purchase allows for improved peace of mind because you know what it took to make the products and the kind of environmental impact they may leave behind as a result.