It’s never been more difficult to know what products to buy. When companies use terms with no standard scientific definition – like natural, sustainable, clean, ethical, green or eco-friendly – it can be nearly impossible for consumers to know if what they’re buying really is better. Enter greenwashing, a term for companies exaggerating or misleading about their environment-conscious efforts. A 2021 report from the European Commission found that in a sweep of websites’ “green” claims in sectors such as apparel, cosmetics and household, 42% of claims were exaggerated, false or deceptive.
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Here’s how to spot promotional product greenwashing – as well as common, unsubstantiated claims and buzzwords in other industries and products.
1. Using undefined marketing terms.
Across many industries, consumers swoon for language such as all-natural, clean, eco-friendly and organic. Unfortunately, there’s no oversight for the use of these words, according to Jess Taylor, a co-founder of Practically Green, a website focused on helping ordinary people make more sustainable decisions. “Any company can easily incorporate these into their marketing strategy,” Taylor says, “without making changes to their production or sourcing processes.”
2. Creating new brands to hide the parent company.
Consumers of both hard and soft goods are becoming more aware of how their purchases affect the environment, so conglomerates are launching smaller brands “and employing ambiguous keywords and dreamy images of nature,” Taylor says.
H&M has caught heat for its Conscious line, and the haircare and skincare line Love Beauty and Planet is owned by Unilever. (That corporation has committed to 100% recycled packaging by 2025.) All this is to say that finding out who manufactures an eco-friendly product may be difficult, even if you’re an eco-aware buyer, Taylor adds.
3. Using eye-popping natural elements.
Because of the way our brains work, people make connections between unrelated ideas when presented with visual or audio cues. “Corporations can fool your brain into thinking they are environmentally friendly simply by changing tags on clothing or staging a photoshoot in nature,” Taylor says. Earthy materials like twine and cardboard, and images of plants or other outdoor elements are all easily associated with earth-friendly aesthetics – even if there’s nothing to back it up.
What Can You Do?
Here are three ways to help counteract any greenwashing you may encounter.
- Don’t make environmental claims to your clients unless you can back them up.
- Ask follow-up questions when vendors tell you a product is “natural” or “green.”
- Educate your customers and staff on sustainability best practices.
4. Not disclosing the full product life cycle.
This is a common greenwashing tactic, Taylor says, wherein companies will cherry-pick to make their production efforts sound less wasteful. How to spot it, according to Taylor: “The product’s lifespan will only be revealed in part, such as that it’s made of recycled material.” What the company won’t talk about is production, where high-carbon emissions and conventional energy could still be used, both of which have the potential to harm the environment and human health.
5. Claiming items are recyclable.
Many critics of greenwashing point to high-profile cases – remember the uproar about Keurig K-cups? – of exaggerated claims meant to persuade buyers that packaging or products are recyclable. “It’s the wild, wild West of product claims and labeling with no sheriff in town,” Jan Dell, founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, told The New York Times in 2021. While it may technically be true that an item is recyclable, it also may be difficult or impossible in many areas of the U.S., depending on what recycling services are available.
6. Not presenting any certificate from a recognizable institution.
Many internationally recognized agencies focus on regulating sustainability practices and providing a credible way of knowing which companies are worth supporting. “Keeping yourself informed can help you better decide where to shop remorse-free,” Taylor says. While these agencies vary on their strictness and requirements, look for the OK from agencies such as Certified B Corp., Cradle to Cradle, and Green America’s Green Business Certification.
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