When we buy a product because it is recyclable, biodegradable, or otherwise “green” and good for the environment, we wholly place our trust in that company that they’re telling the truth. After all, why would we doubt them? If they’d go to the effort of making eco-friendly packaging, they’re not going to be advertising falsely, right?
Well, we’d all like to hope not. Unfortunately, there’s one big factor here, and that’s marketing.
As a global society, we are trending toward being more environmentally conscious. We are often happy to spend a little extra money to get packaging we can recycle or throw out without worrying it’s going to outlive us. Of course, where there are trends, there’s money, and companies are dishonestly labelling their products as “green,” despite the fact they’re incredibly likely to end up in a landfill or in the ocean.
There are a lot of companies using “biodegradable” and “oxo-degradable” packaging, which actually can’t be recycled. As we talked about in one of our other recent blog posts (What’s the Difference Between Recyclable, Biodegradable, and Compostable?), biodegradable doesn’t mean it’s going to degrade quickly.
Worryingly, some third party certifications actually allow the use of plastics and equally damaging bioplastics (sometimes referred to as starch/cellulose)! Ever wondered how that plastic looking packaging or pouch is plastic free? Well, it usually isn’t! It started out as a natural material but has been formed into a bioplastic which can be as equally or more damaging to the environment as conventional plastics.
Unfortunately, these claims of “green” packaging are widespread, and we are being duped into thinking we’re helping the environment when, in fact, these options are actually often worse than standard, recyclable plastics.
This deception is known as greenwashing.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the practice of companies misrepresenting themselves as “green,” or at least greener than they actually are. Most people aren’t familiar with the term greenwashing, but the practice is very common in today’s manufacturing industry. Too many companies are fooling people into believing that they’re doing more to protect the environment and bring about change than they really are, through clever marketing technical-truths.
Examples of Greenwashing
Greenwashing can take several forms. Here are some of the most commonly seen types of greenwashing:
A Lack of Transparency
Companies know that more and more people want to “go green,” and so they take advantage without caring that they are misleading consumers. Yes, part of the product or manufacturing process might be “green,” but that should not be enough to label the whole product as “green”. This is especially true when environmental factors of manufacturing and distribution are taken into account. Genuine green brands or products provide more detailed information on the manufacturing process and resource use, either on the packaging itself on their sites. With greenwashed products, that information is impossible to find.
Lack of Proof
This is a situation of greenwashing where a company makes a claim that one of their products is “green” in some way, such as made from recycled materials, when it cannot be proved, as there is no actual certification to confirm this claim. This is the most blatant form of greenwashing and can be uncovered with little digging.
This is pretty self-explanatory. This is an example of greenwashing where any claim regarding “green” can be misunderstood, since the term itself is so vague. As it currently stands, there are no guidelines for what classes a product as “green” or environmentally friendly, and until this is put in place, companies and manufacturers can be very vague about their “green” products.
This is another example where consumers are being misled through a lack of understanding. Some products will be labelled with a claim that is truthful to sound like it is environmentally friendly when, in fact, it has no significance to this. For example, a product could be labelled as ‘CFC-free’ (chlorofluorocarbon), but CFC has actually been banned in the UK since 1996, because of the damage they caused to the ozone layer. So all products should be CFC-free.
The Lesser of Two Evils
This is a term used when a product is the best option in its group, but only because the other options are even more harmful to the environment. It is likely to not be “green” at all, just better than anything else you can find.
Fibbing, Lying, and Bluffing
Possibly the worst form of greenwashing, it’s just as it sounds – outrightly making a false claim. Fortunately, this form is not seen as often in big brands because they’ll be worried about potential lawsuits, but it does happen.
This is commonly used for products claiming to be organic, and is when the labelling of a product simply gives the appearance that it holds some kind of certification from a third-party. In reality, it is often a self-declaration. Yes, some labels are genuine, but others are just for show for marketing. Many brands use images of leaves or have green packaging to make you think that the product is eco-friendly simply through association.
How to Avoid Brands and Products That Use Greenwashing
Read the Packaging Thoroughly
Just because the packaging of a product made is from fully recycled materials or recyclable doesn’t mean that the product was made in an eco-friendly way. There aren’t many packaged products that are 100% “green,” but if the brand really cares, they will state clearly on their packaging or website how environmentally friendly the product is. And, though it probably goes without saying these days, avoid unnecessary plastics by only buying products that use minimal, or recycled, packaging whenever you can.
You can get a lot of information from the homepage of a brand’s website. If they are earnest about being green, they will shout it from the rooftops and immediately display their credentials as an environmentally friendly brand. In other words, it will be a part of their brand. If you still aren’t sure, do a quick search on Google of the brand name along with the word “greenwashing,” and you will soon find out.
Ask Them on Social Media
If you aren’t sure about a product or brand, don’t be afraid to ask them questions on social media or via email, just make sure you don’t go on the attack and presume they are greenwashing. If a company really is passionate about making their products eco-friendly, they’ll be more than happy to tell you about it. If they are reluctant to do so, you can disregard them as a brand you want to buy from.
If it looks and feels like plastic but says “plastic free”, beware!
Companies and manufacturers need to take a step back and realise that greenwashing is not acceptable. They should care more about how they are perceived and will be in the future. Valued customers should not be misled when they are trying to make a positive change and help reduce their footprint. Now you know what to look out for, you can avoid brands that practise greenwashing to help make a change to the manufacturing industry.
We at Ethical Nutrition Co put ourselves at a big commercial disadvantage by choosing to use truly eco-friendly packaging and we appreciate your support. If you’d like to learn a little more about eco-friendly food packaging and how we became the first UK plastic free supplement company click here.