What Is Greenwashing, And How Can You Fight Against It In Your Daily Life?

How to determine if your eco-friendly practices and purchases are really all that they seem to be.

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It always feels good to make a healthy decision, whether that’s going to the gym, cutting out negative energy, or doing your part to help better the environment. We all try to be conscious of the planet and taking care of the world around us. Every little step helps and should (theoretically) count. But what if you found out that those allegedly “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” products and practices you were adopting were not as socially responsible as they seemed? Welcome to the world of greenwashing. In case you aren’t familiar with this term, greenwashing is a company’s attempt to make its products appear environmentally sound, when in fact the products themselves are not green at all. Unfortunately, this practice is prevalent in many industries, from textiles and cleaning supplies to beauty products and food. “Greenwashing is the … attempt to make something appear environmentally sound when indeed it is quite possibly not,” says Kevin Dixon, founder and president of Alterra Pure textiles. “Some are unintentional, some aren’t. Some are malicious, or others are from lack of understanding. It takes a few different forms. For many, it’s difficult to spend the time to gain the knowledge to know the difference between them.”

“When you know what you’re looking for, it’s not easy for … businesses to pull the wool over your eyes.” —Shannon Dunn of EcoBeautyEditor

Examples of greenwashing include companies trying to leverage certain buzzwords in advertisements and on product labels, such as “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” and “natural.” “When you know what you’re looking for, it’s not easy for such businesses to pull the wool over your eyes. But in most cases, the general public doesn’t know what to look for on the labels, so they trust what they are being told by clever marketing,” says Shannon Dunn, founder of EcoBeautyEditor. The sad news is that this is only detrimental to the company if consumers know to dig a little deeper and discover the truth, which does not happen as often as we might think. The only way to discern the reality behind the claims is to get educated about how greenwashing is used and how to see beyond the hype.

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing Companies

The way greenwashing works is often referred to as the Seven Sins of Greenwashing. The first sin is the Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off, which is the claim that a product is “green” based on certain attributes—without giving deeper thought to the meaning behind them. For example, paper isn’t necessarily environmentally friendly if the wood it’s made from came from a sustainably harvested forest. The production of paper typically results in greenhouse gas emissions and/or chlorine use in the bleaching process, so deeper research is needed to determine which paper products are actually sustainable. The Sin of No Proof is a claim that can’t be proven. There is no trace of these claims ever being substantiated, nor is there evidence of a credible third-party certification. The Sin of Vagueness is an eco assertion that is so unclear that it is easy to misunderstand what it means. The most common example is the use of the term “all natural.” Mercury, arsenic, and formaldehyde are naturally occurring, but would you want those on your skin or in your body? The Sin of Worshipping False Labels is exactly that: fake labels. They are meant to give consumers the idea that the product has been endorsed by a third party when no such endorsement (or third party) actually exists. The Sin of Irrelevance is a claim that might technically be true, but it doesn’t actually have anything to do with a product being environmentally friendly. For example, a product that says “CFC-free” might intrigue consumers, when the fact of the matter is that CFCs are banned from all products by U.S. law.

The Sin of Fibbing is an environmental claim that is a downright lie. And it happens more than you think.

The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils is a claim that may be true within the product category but that doesn’t truly address the issue overall. Organic cigarettes, for example, are certainly the lesser of two evils, but is one option really that much better? Finally, the Sin of Fibbing is an environmental claim that is a downright lie. And it happens more than you think. “The intentional cases of greenwashing clearly benefit companies wanting to take a shortcut to appear sustainable or ethical, when in fact they haven’t taken all steps to reach that marketing claim,” says Danielle Jezienicki, director of corporate social responsibility for Williams-Sonoma, Inc. “This enhances their brand reputation or image with customers but runs a major risk of being discovered with negative long-term consequences as customers are more educated and interested in transparency than ever before.”

How do you know if a company is using greenwashing tactics?

There are a lot of great companies that are committed to making this planet a better place and that are getting their message across beautifully. Still, there are companies out there that are doing their best to deceive us by giving the impression that it’s environmentally sound to use or consume their products, when it’s really not. “This is part of the issue—it can be difficult to spot a company that is greenwashing unless you do some research,” says Dunn. “I always like to know who is behind the company, what its history is, the mission, and, of course, why they choose to use the ingredients they do. If this information is not available or not clear, then it’s always a sign to me that some deeper digging is needed.” According to the Greenwashing Index, one of the best ways to see if a company is greenwashing is to look at an ad and then look at the company as a whole. It’s a good practice to look on their website for information on their sustainable business practices. If you can find this easily or can find something else to back up their claims on the ad, that’s a good sign. Another way to tell if a company is greenwashing is to google the company along with the word environment and see what kind of results you get. “This is far from scientific, but if consumers or environmental advocates have a beef with the company’s track record, something’s bound to pop up,” the Greenwashing Index reports.

How to Become More Aware of Greenwashing Tactics

The best way is to educate yourself. Sadly it’s not as easy as glancing at a label these days. It requires a bit more time and investment on your part to do your homework. That said, there are advocacy and environmental groups out there working tirelessly to bridge the gap so that going green won’t have to be a conscious choice anymore. It will be the only choice. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, works with a variety of private sector standards developers to create programs for eco-preferred goods and services, such as the ENERGY STAR, WaterSense, and Safer Choice labels. Greener Choices is another organization working in the food space to educate consumers about which products support a sustainable food system. Its goal is to empower the consumer with information so that they can decide which practices to support. Labels include Fair Trade Certified, Certified Pesticide Residue Free, American Humane Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified, etc.  

How to Make Your Daily Life More Eco-Friendly

The first step is always to educate yourself. “Read the ingredients label,” says Sheridan Howie, coordinator of sustainability for Lulu. “Pretty packaging may mask a product’s negative effects.” Howie gives the example of sunscreen, which may claim to be biodegradable but still includes harmful chemicals like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and methyl paragon. Howie recommends DoneGood as a great resource for finding environmentally responsible companies. They have a Chrome extension that recommends ethical, sustainable brands as you shop online. It even includes discount codes! (Ecolabel Index is also helpful to find environmental certifications.) Still, there are practical everyday things that we can be doing to reduce our carbon footprint overall. “The easiest way to be more eco-friendly or waste-free at home is to avoid what I call NSU products, or non-single use,” says Josh Wadinski, founder of Plantioxidants, a line of beauty products that bridge the gap between luxury, health, and sustainability. As Wadinski points out, “each time you order carry-out food, you typically receive plastic utensils, some form of carton, and a bag.” He recommends asking yourself how much of that you’re recycling and how much will you just throw away. Then prior to purchasing, consider asking the restaurant not to provide a bag or the plastic utensils. He also recommends looking for products that indicate they are not from virgin materials and that they are entirely recyclable and/or biodegradable. “Our shipping boxes at Plantioxidants are made from entirely recycled cardboard and are biodegradable. Even our label is made from completely recycled materials and our adhesive for it is vegetable-based.” This means that even if you throw away the packaging, no harm is being done to the environment. Other easy life hacks include turning off the faucet when you’re not actively using it (e.g., when you’re brushing your teeth), turning off lights in rooms you’re not using, setting air conditioning temperatures a little higher, and looking for every way possible to use fresh produce. “Lastly,” Wadinski says, “use your dollar to make it clear that you work towards a waste-free life. If you love a product but you only see an abundance of wasteful packaging, don’t simply buy it. Email them, let them know your concern, and see what they can do.” Identifying greenwashing tactics isn’t always easy, but there are steps you can take to educate yourself as a consumer and call out unethical marketing tactics while making the world a cleaner, greener place.

Meagan Drillinger
Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer who has a thirst for experiences. Her adventures have taken her from the ryokans of Japan to the back alleys of Malaysia and the mountains of Patagonia, but her favorite place in the world is Mexico. She is also the founder of Vaera Journeys, a retreat company for aspiring entrepreneurial women. When she’s not globetrotting, she’s splitting her time between New York and Puerto Vallarta, exploring new restaurants, hitting the gym, or curled up with a good book. She is the Mexico reporter for Travel Weekly magazine, and her work has also appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel + Leisure, and more. Visit her site to follow her adventures.