Greenwashing products have led consumers, concerned about helping the planet, to buy products that are less ecological than they appear to be. Let’s look at some greenwashing products that claim to be good for the environment, but may be more harmful than you think.
What is corporate greenwashing? Greenwashing is an unethical marketing tactic in which companies promote products as environmentally friendly even though they do not significantly help the environment. This misleading approach has become more common in recent years as the global economy moves towards more sustainable business practices.
Greenwashing capitalizes on consumers environmentally friendly shopping habits encouraging them to buy “green” items without real environmental benefits. Here’s what you need to know to avoid greenwashing and buy truly green products.
How to spot greenwashing products
You should be aware that any product can fall victim to greenwashing, including clothing, food, appliances, and automobiles. However, you can recognize different trends in greenwashing between different products, companies and industries, and learn how to spot them better in the future.
Clothing companies often whitewash their products by marketing them with factual claims unrelated to their environmental impact.
Clothing brands have been laundering fashion for decades with this strategy. A company may sell its clothing as “made from natural materials”, but most of the fashion industry can make the same claim. Consumers shouldn’t celebrate these companies for making their clothes from cotton, linen and wool; these materials should be the standard for the industry.
Also, sometimes a clothing company tries to promote a sustainable material, but does not disclose the ingredients and production processes that created it. A well-known example comes from Cargill, the largest maize producer in the world. Cargill officials claimed to have created a new fleece material from corn sugar, but they used their own genetically modified corn to make it. Their so-called green product was nothing more than a shady cash grab.
Companies also may not inform consumers about the harmful effects of ingredients. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guilty of bamboo clothing manufacturers of this greenwashing strategy in 2010 when manufacturers marketed their rayon products as being made from “bamboo fiber”, a material that is sustainable in its proper form. But the FTC found a problem: Rayon contains toxic carbon disulfide, which negates the positive effects of bamboo fiber. While the garments technically contained bamboo fiber, the other ingredients sanitized the product and eliminated its ecological value.
Textile waste is also a major problem in the garment industry. Although a company could make its products from sustainable ingredients, the overall waste produced by the company could easily offset the products. H&M, Uniqlo and Zara have been caught hiding their excessive waste.
The presence of a sustainable material does not always mean that the clothing product is environmentally friendly. Looking at the rest of the ingredients and the production process can help to better understand the product in question. If you find conflicting information, the best thing to do is to find a better solution with another brand.
All food products suffer from greenwashing, including pet food. The most common example of food greenwashing is promoting a product as “organic” or “made with real ingredients.” Don’t be fooled by these labels – companies often source from factory farms and genetically modified ingredients.
As we do not have an established definition of “real ingredients”, they may attach any misleading label they want to their food products without first obtaining approval from an authority. However, this does not immunize them from punishment. Tyson Meat Company faces a heavy trial after being caught in the act.
Food giants Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé are perhaps the most overt and shameless greenwashers, offering vague sustainability goals without measurables or action plans. They’ve made big pledges to “reduce waste,” but it turns out that these three companies lead the world in plastic pollution. They hide their waste behind loud green PR campaigns, and environmental organizations have ensured to call them.
Sometimes a food or beverage company can legitimately have an eco-friendly item, but production and distribution can make up for it. Of course, companies never tell us about these harmful processes. Starbucks faces backlash for using this exact strategy with its strawless lids. Although the lids helped reduce straw waste, they required more plastic per unit; which means the lids ended up doing more harm than good.
While buying Energy Star qualified appliances is generally a safe bet, no appliance is immune to greenwashing, as companies can simply omit the harmful effects. An item can be eco-friendly in a controlled environment, but every home has different energy needs and efficiencies. General Electric (GE) was exposed for this tactic when the company claimed that its appliances could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but failed to take into account the monthly energy costs and the number of appliances needed to achieve a substantial reduction.
Another common tactic with appliances is the use of buzzwords and images. Using buzzwords to grab consumers’ attention and build trust is a widely used marketing tactic. Greenwashing companies casually attach words and phrases like “family-friendly” and “non-toxic” to promotional materials and packaging without supporting evidence.
Pictures can accomplish the same effect. A well-known example is the Dawn dish soap marketing campaign which used animal rescue photos and videos black tides. While Dawn’s cleaning efforts are admirable on their own, they don’t make their product any more environmentally friendly.
These attractive words and images seek to grab the attention of empathetic consumers. Check your impulses and remember that the company doesn’t care about you or your sympathy – they just want your money.
You often see deceptive trade-offs in the auto industry when companies use the “lesser of two evils” strategy. They promote a product as being greener than a competitor’s, but the bar can be set so low that the comparison becomes irrelevant. A “fuel efficient” vehicle may indeed have better fuel efficiency than its competitor, but that means nothing if both cars still cause significant damage to the environment.
The same logic applies to gas and fuel companies. BP has introduced “low-carbon energy products” and added solar panels to gas stations, but that hasn’t reduced the company’s oil and gas spending. Similarly, ExxonMobil said its experimental algae-based biofuels could reduce emissions from travel, but did not disclose its own emissions in its report. 2025 Sustainability Goals outline.
It was the same ExxonMobil that caused a debilitating oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989 that continues to impact the region.
Learn from these examples that any claim made by a vehicle or fuel manufacturer could be an attempt to hide harmful emissions or the company’s troubled past. Respond to every request with a healthy level of skepticism.
Spotting greenwashing through research and intuition
An environmentally conscious consumer should always exercise caution when shopping, as all items essential to our daily lives – clothing, food, appliances and automobiles – can fall victim to greenwashing. Companies that launder their products often use the same strategies that you can spot through research and intuition.
Greenwashing is unethical and you should treat it as such. Don’t give companies the benefit of the doubt. If you suspect a company has used any of the above strategies, play on the safe side and look for an alternative product.
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Image courtesy of: China Water Risk