Others immediately began to pretend to have eco-friendly products and services. They spent more money on advertising their claims than in cleaning up their act. Such claims became known as greenwashing.
One poll in the 1990s found that more than three of four consumers said they chose what to buy based on the manufacturer’s environmental reputation. Another found that 84% of respondents considered environmental crimes more serious than price-fixing or insider trading.
Today, many companies have been founded with the intention of being good to the environment. A high percentage of consumers still want to be good to the environment. Taking the time to learn what that means is another matter.
Greenwashing is still with us. How are we supposed to know the difference between true and false environmental claims?
Some signs of greenwashing
Any claim that doesn’t violate some law is fair game in advertising. That means that companies can make green claims that mean nothing more than their desire to make environmentally-conscious people buy their products.
That is, anyone can put “eco-friendly” on a label. Whether the product is actually eco-friendly is another matter. Assume greenwashing if you don’t notice anything to substantiate the claim. Here are some other common terms that have no legal definition and therefore mean nothing:
- Natural, all-natural, etc.
- Plant-based, plant-derived, etc.
Some other terms, such as “organic” or “non-GMO” do have precise meanings. There are organizations that offer certification to products that meet their standards. Suspect greenwashing if you see a package that says “organic” yet lacks the “USDA Organic” seal.
Quite apart from using certain vague words, greenwashing can take the form of packaging with pictures of leaves or other attractive images from nature.
Look out for technically true claims that don’t matter. For example, CFCs have been banned by law. So if a product claims to be CFC-free, so what? Or, a package might claim that a product now has 50% more recycled content than before. If it only had 2% recycled content, it now has 3%. Big deal.
Have you noticed that fashions in what to be concerned about come and go? A few years ago, every news cycle had some warning about preservatives. So labels on food sprouted claims that they had NO PRESERVATIVES!! Including several brands of strawberry preserves.
You can’t preserve strawberries without a preservative. But it doesn’t take chemicals with long Latin names. Just loads of sugar. Today, I don’t see that claim on labels. Now they say, “gluten-free,” whether it makes more sense or not.
False green claims come in various waves just like false nutritional claims.
Likewise, beware of comparative claims. That Ziploc box says, “better for the environment.” How is it better? Better than what? They’re certainly not better for the environment than not using plastic bags at all.
The proactive consumer can look at the company’s website. Many corporations now publish sustainability standards. If they’re vague and general—or if you can’t find any––view their advertising and packaging with suspicion.
Speaking of packaging, the more packaging a product has, the less sustainable it is.
Good signs of good environmental practices
First, let’s be clear on one thing: no one has yet devised any product or service that satisfies everyone’s idea of what’s good for the environment. Someone will always have good reason to question green claims.
Unfortunately, some environmentalists have such a mindlessly anticorporate bias that nothing a company does can pass muster. Not all claims of greenwashing have merit any more than all environmental claims.
Even experts have trouble knowing which brands truly meet high ethical standards. Some companies blatantly practice greenwashing. In other cases, the issues are not clear cut.
Still, anyone can look for certain signs that a company has a genuine interest in sustainability.
- It will have ambitious but measurable environmental goals and disclose both successes in meeting them and setbacks.
- It will have both long-term and short-term goals.
- Although it may use offsets such as planting trees, it relies more on making its own operations more sustainable.
- It will include its entire supply chain and how customers use its products in discussing its carbon footprint.
- It will back up environmental claims by earning third-party certification.
That last criterion can be tricky. For one thing, not every company that has earned certification chooses to tout it in its marketing. Still, it should be easy to find on its website. For another, even companies that exist to certify sustainable practices have been accused of greenwashing.
Examples of greenwashing
Truth in Advertising has published this list of specific examples of false environmental claims:
Volkswagen publicly admitted that it cheated to make its “green diesel” cars pass environmental tests. Other diesel manufacturers have faced similar allegations. Mercedes-Benz faces a class-action suit alleging that its “eco-friendly” BlueTEC line releases more than 65 times the EPA’s allowable limit for nitrogen oxide. Clean diesel is an oxymoron. It’s a clear example of greenwashing.
Reynolds American claims its Natural American Spirit cigarettes are eco-friendly. After all, its office runs on wind power. It uses electric hand dryers instead of paper towels and serves coffee in ceramic mugs instead of paper cups.
But cigarette smoke releases hundreds of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, including known carcinogens. And then consider the environmental impact of trillions of discarded cigarette butts every year. No sustainable practices in an office make up for that.
Procter & Gamble advertises “flushable” Charmin Freshmates moist towelettes. In settling a class-action lawsuit, it agreed to add a disclaimer that they should be used only in “well-maintained plumbing systems.” In fact, “flushable wipes” aren’t. Period. They cause major problems in sewer systems. As a greenwashing slogan, “flushable wipes” is as much oxymoron as “clean diesel.”
Compostable coffee pods
And it’s true. Sort of.
The Biogradeable Products Institute has certified that they decompose at industrial compost facilities. The implication that consumers can toss them on their own compost piles is classic greenwashing.
Sustainably sourced cocoa beans
Nestle advertises “sustainably sourced” cocoa beans. A class-action suit filed in 2019 alleges that cocoa bean production in West Africa drives deforestation and that the farms Nestle buys from use child and slave labor.
Cruelty-free animal acts
SeaWorld has long claimed that it protects and nurtures the whales used in its popular shows. And it has long been sued by animal rights groups that allege the whales actually lead “unhealthy and despairing lives.”
Green non-stick cookware
Non-stick coatings on cookware have long had a bad environmental reputation. Ceramic coatings ought to be better. GreenPan bases its claim to be eco-friendly solely because manufacturing ceramic coatings emit 60% less carbon dioxide than traditional coatings.
That’s not enough. The National Advertising Division of the FTC (NAD) recommended in 2012 that the company stop its green claims. It stands to reason that ceramic coatings are better than others. But advertising as such without detailed substantiation is greenwashing.
Recyclable paper plates
AJM Packaging Corporation issued “Nature’s Own Green Label” paper plates. It claimed they were recyclable. It provided no credible scientific evidence. The FTC barred it from making such claims in 1994, and the company paid a $450,000 penalty. That didn’t stop the deceptive advertising. The FTC went after the company again in 2013 for violating the earlier consent order.
Carbon neutral batteries
NAD disputed claims by LEI Electronics that its “Eco Alkaline” batteries are carbon neutral. The company pointed to its Carbonfree Product Certification from Carbonfund.org and said it would not discontinue its advertising.
Nest Lab has substantiated some of its environmental claims for its programmable thermostats. Competitor Honeywell has challenged its claim that its technology “cuts AC runtime up to 30%.” NAD has recommended that it discontinue such ads.
Rainforest Alliance-certified farms
The Rainforest Alliance issues a highly respected certification seal that claims, “These farms and forests are managed according to rigorous environmental, social and economic criteria designed to conserve wildlife.”
Yet even it has been sued for greenwashing. Water and Sanitation Health alleges that Rainforest Alliance-certified farms practice aerial application of pesticides. Aerial fumigation can severely contaminate drinking water. The Alliance, of course, rejects the accusation.
5 ways to spot a company that is greenwashing / Eco-nnect, July 21, 2020
A brief history of greenwash / Joshua Karliner, CorpWatch. March 22, 2001
Earth Day 2020: Companies accused of greenwashing / Truth in Advertising