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7 Tips to Avoid Greenwashing

7 Tips to Avoid Greenwashing

Zero Waste Lifestyle

Last Updated on September 11, 2020

We’ve talked a lot about greenwashing on this blog, but we haven’t fully delved into what it is and how to avoid it. 

7 tips to avoiding greenwashing from www.goingzerowaste.com #zerowaste #greenwashing #ecofriendly #gogreeen #sustainability

what is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is when a product or business says they’re green or eco-friendly, but they spend more resources on making sure you know that, rather than actually implementing this into their business practices. 

For example, a grocery store runs a huge campaign about how green they are because they recycle plastic bags. When in reality, the best thing the grocery store could do is stop offering plastic bags in the first place.

Or they could spend all of those resources on a campaign to incentivize bringing your own bag like a .05 cent discount on your purchase. 

It all boils down to profit. It’s typically a company or a business making a claim in order to sell more products. 

For example, a streaming service announces that it’s now partially powered by renewable energy. That’s great! Now you feel better about using their services. 

What they don’t tell you is that, it’s only 3% of their servers are running on renewable energy. It’s basically a bait and switch, but we’ll get to that in the next header. 

why is greenwashing a problem? 

Greenwashing is hiding a larger problem. At it’s best it’s a marketing ploy and at it’s worst it actually incentivizes something that hurts the environment. 

Like the grocery bag example. By running a huge campaign about recycling plastic bags, this will encourage more people to take plastic bags. They think by taking more plastic bags and recycling them, they’re doing the right thing – the “green” thing.

In reality, they’re encouraging a non-eco-friendly habit. 

As the eco-friendly/natural/green movement etc. grows the more marketers are going to use it to their advantage. Their main goal is to sell more products. If they can sell more products by being “green,” then so be it. 

A more extreme version is an oil company saying they want to branch out into renewable energy sources. You can help them transition to cleaner energy if you buy their oil. All the while they’re lobbying for big oil and funding pseudo-science to inform the public there’s nothing wrong with oil. 

how can you tell?

1. Do you see an awesome green claim? Double check it. Go to their website. Is there a lot of information? Or do you see a lot of ambiguity? If it’s really vague and unspecific – it’s greenwashing. 

2. Is the ad diverting you from the big picture? Sure BP helped clean up cuddly little ducks. It pulled on your heart strings. How adorable! But, if it weren’t for gross negligence on their part, those little ducks wouldn’t have been covered in oil in the first place. That’s greenwashing. 

3. Are the words misleading? Are they saying a whole bunch of nothing? Is there any substantial information? Are their sources for their claims like actual certifications or provable facts? 

4. What about the graphics? Are the graphics all green? Do they depict beautiful nature scenes? Are they trying to make you feel like the product is natural when it might be anything but? 

5. Does the claim feel too good to be true? Are they overstating intention? Do you really think the company can follow through with their claims? 

6. What’s your gut reaction? I’m pretty sure we all know not to take advertisements at face value. There’s always an ulterior motive to get to your pocket book. Trust yourself.

7. When in doubt google it. The great thing about the internet is the history is all there. 

the test:

I’m going to show you a couple of ads below and tell me how you feel about them. I’ll discuss what’s wrong with each of them below. 

First off, pure and natural mean absolutely nothing. The package is green which makes you feel like this is a natural setting. They use the word organic cotton, but there’s no organic symbol. Therefore organic means absolutely nothing. 

If you actually google this brand of diapers you’ll find out the uncertified organic cotton is only used in a small amount on the outside of the diaper. You don’t know what type of inks they’re using, and they’re still bleached with chlorine. They’re definitely landfill trash too; they aren’t compostable. 

They have misleading claims about how big of a problem diapers are in landfills on their website. All in all, that doesn’t sound very natural to me. 

Seriously. 20 MPG highway is terrible. This thing is totally thirsty for gas. The only way this ad could be better is if the whole thing were green. 

One of my favorite examples of greenwashing. It’s so hip and so chic. A lot of white space very modern minimal design to appeal to do-gooder hipsters. 

It’s begging the question, is boxed water really better? No. It’s not. It’s still a disposable item and it’s even less recyclable (if possible) than bottled water. 

Plus the box is still lined with plastic. It’s a tetra pak and unrecyclable in most municipalities. Greenwashing at it’s finest folks. 

According to the tetra pak website 58% of US households have access to tetra pak recycling. But, I just typed in almost every city I’ve lived in in the past 10 years and couldn’t recycle tetra paks in a single one. Including my current bay area town. 

58% don’t believe it. 

This is just hilarious. They made a new cap with less plastic to benefit the environment…. riiiiggghhhttttt……. 

H&M responsible for pushing fast fashion and engineering 52 micro-seasons that make you feel completely out of fashion the moment after you wear something. They’re now taking back your old textiles and will give you a coupon to buy more clothes. 

By the way, most of those clothes aren’t actually going to be recycled but put off onto third world countries where the problem will be exacerbated since they don’t have the proper form of infrastructure for dealing with toxic waste. You can read more about this on my post about fast fashion here

It’s infuriating how greenwashed the campaign is. Never once taking ownership over the problem they created, but rather took the problem and turned it into an opportunity to sell more clothes. 


Do you have any favorite greenwashed campaigns? What are some of your tips for avoiding greenwashing? 

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  1. Where did you get the information that most of the clothes recycled through H&M’s program will be sent to third world countries? I read their 130 page sustainability report, other articles, and looked at their partner I:CO and found that they are either reused (as clothes), or turned to rags or housing insulation. Do you have a source that they are dumping this in third world countries? That’s a pretty serious allegation…

    1. I also read the I:CO page and couldn’t find any information about where or how their clothing is "reused". I imagine that they use the same channels that massive used-clothing processors like GoodWill Industries and Value Village use, which is to sort and bale clothing and anything still wearable gets shipped overseas to (mostly) Africa, where it is resold very cheaply. This is all the stuff that won’t sell in North America, and thus quite poor quality. It has the net effect of undermining local textile industries and making the Global South yet more dependent on the Global North, because they cannot produce clothing locally that competes with our exported castoffs. I:CO isn’t being transparent about their process, which is a huge red flag. They simply CANNOT sell all of the re-wearable clothing that gets put into the system – there’s no way. There’s much much more used clothing on the market than market for used clothing, unfortunately. Hence the exports. It’s not dumping so much as exporting a product that shouldn’t be exported.

      Levi’s turns some of their jeans into housing insulation but they actually have quite a progressive recycling program and are working to include at least 20% of recycled denim in many of their jeans. For now, the technology isn’t there to make denim from 100% recycled denim, but they’re actually working on that innovation. I work in the ENGO field and I’m pretty skeptical, but Levi’s is impressing me with their efforts.

    2. I know that Levi’s uses their clothing as housing insulation, I didn’t know that H&M had started. I was under the impression that was only for cotton and denim. In several articles from 2016 Quartz and The Guradian (I can’t link articles in the comment section, but if you send me an email I’d be more than happy to forward them) They were trying to recycle the fabrics into new clothing pieces. Only 1% of the 1,000 tons of waste collected during the 2016 world recycle week was actually used in creating new fabric. The recycled portion was only used for the thread in the garments, it would take 12 years to use as much as they collected. If this is how they’re trying to use the recycled clothing, I can only assume they shipped it to the third world countries that sew the garments. I have pictures in the post I linked to of what happens to that garment waste. Hopefully, this has changed! I really hope I have old outdated info!

  2. This makes me so sad. I’m working on writing a letter to Boxed Water about their "green efforts". They’re from my home state of Michigan and that makes me even sadder!

  3. I hate it when companies claim that now 0% of their waste goes to landfill. They do recycle some but what they can’t easily recycle they simply burn. True nothing is ending up in landfill but what about all the cost and fumes etc from burning waste!?

    1. Yes! This! At my Whole Foods I always see a "Zero Waste To Landfill since X year" on the station containing Burts Bees products, where almost everything is plastic. So much waste, but if the consumer is the one who has to throw away the empty plastic container, it somehow doesn’t count toward BB’s zero waste? Cray.

  4. I got a good one, How about Tide Pur-Clean! Wish I could share an image, the huge plastic bottle has an abstract tree on it and everything!

  5. Hello,

    Please look into the Boxed Water company before you bash it. Yes buying any packaged water is not the best solution, but they are trying to do good. They are a part of 1% for the planet and are doing a campaign to plant trees in National Forests. If you find something deeper that’s wrong with the company do share, but there are so many better green washing examples from companies that actually aren’t doing anything helpful!

    Every time I see someone bash them, they​ don’t actually know anything about the company. They started in the town I lived in, so I feel as though I should say something. The boxes are also recyclable, however I will now be doing more research to see where. I don’t personally buy them, but I also don’t want to crush companies that are actually trying to make better choices!

    Thank you,

    Sharon

    Working on my baby steps:

    SingleUsePlasticFree2017

  6. In my country there are these very "green diapers" made from plastic that have and oxo biodegradable component in them but the rest is plastic and cotton with no smell I do buy them. It will be the last of them that I buy though. I worte to them asking about landfill and composting and not a single return email. I just use one at night. Cloth diaper isn’t that absorbant for him yet. I will switch to the bamboos diaper when I finish these.

    So sad

    Also what about Starbucks. How they fell green because the discount you if you bring your own coffee cup but instead they should charge you for your plastic cup not the other way around. I’ve wrote to them multiple times with no response.

    And what about Lush. They claim green some of their products are good and they do recycle the black containers when you bring them back and is mostly package free but they still use SLS in all of their products they claim their public hasn’t had problems with that !! What a joke

    I could keep going on and on. Like the white powdered stevia which is more a cancer based white powder than anything resembling stevia.

    Thanks for this article I didn’t know green washing was a term!!

  7. This is really good information, Kathryn. I’ve been frustrated at the increasing amount of work it takes to figure out which companies are actually being truthful. Another frustration is that there’s no guarantee that they’ll keep up their good practices, especially that bigger, badder companies tend to scoop up the successful "green" ones to help with their image. I remember one particular ad from Cascadian Farms Organics (unbeknownst to many, it’s owned by General Mills) that was going around on social media about all the work they’re doing to protect bees. Something about bee-beards. This was when California was voting to ban (or not) GMOs and General Mills was fighting hard against the ban. I questioned their sincerity (in a very diplomatic way). They wrote back and did a song and dance. Whatever. The "greenwashing" efforts are getting more subtle and the paint is getting thicker. Your tips on what to watch out for help in guiding us consumers through the confusion. We have to dare to scratch the surface to see if what we’re looking at is the real deal or a cheap, toxic imitation.

  8. HI Kathryn, I recently discovered your blog on Pinterest and am devouring all of this great information. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into researching, writing and sharing. I have been grappling with the fact that businesses are even allowed to manufacture plastic bags. I agree with you, don’t even offer them, nevermind bragging about recycling them. I found switching to cloth bags the easiest step to take, for me now it’s like wearing a seat belt. My new challenge Is taking my coffee cup with me everywhere I go and little cutlery set and napkin. This is proving to be a little more of a challenge! It is a process, we can’t expect perfection and rhere is so much to learn.
    It is so great to find some like minded folks. Keep up the great work!
    Happy 2018 from Vancouver, Canada
    Cathie

  9. IKEA and their furniture from paper… it’s paper, genius, it won’t last long it will be recycled after first sneeze! In contrast, my grandmother have oak wardrobe which used even her parents and is still in perfect condition! When she will die we would definitely take this wardrobe and be the fourth generation whou uses it. This is what the real things are! Could paper do that? I don’t think so…
    Also I often notice tendention that if things looks like a thrash, it defaults turns to amazingly "green". Especially in IKEA world… in one of their books they pictured paper eggs holders as toys in childrens room. Like WTF??? Aren’t there any other green objects for kids to play (especially without salmonella)? And, oh, by the way, this book was printed on that "plastic" type of paper, such much wery wow…

  10. The underlying problem here is a refusal to think outside the box or make any tiny sacrifice – primarily by consumers themselves. People want the same flavors. They want the same syrupy sweetness. They want the same throw-away convenience. They want the same perfection. AND they want it to be "green". That just isn’t always possible. Sugar’s not good for you, monocrops aren’t good for the environment, and sugar processing is a train wreck. Calling it all natural organic cane juice doesn’t make it any better. So even products that are theoretically more "green" are often still not a good answer to our first world entitlement priorities.

  11. You may also wish to have a closer look at bamboo cloth, and how it’s processed. (Along with all the other plant-fiber cloths that come from woody plants; viscose, rayon, tencel, model, etc.) You’ll likely find that the processing of those fibers is far more harmful to the environment than silk, wool, or cotton.

  12. I thought I was doing a good thing by taking my worn out, stained, ripped clothes to H&M to recycle. If that isn’t the right choice, what should I do with clothes that are to worn out to donate locally?

    1. If your clothes are worn-out stained or ripped, they still might be collcted locally. In my area, there are organizations that accept rags for recycling. Another option is checking with local auto body shops. HTHS!

    2. Abby, I watched ‘The True Cost’ on Netflix a few weeks ago. It was mind blowing how much clothing is wasted annually as well as the living conditions of those who make our disposable clothing. May I suggest you give your clothing to your local thrift store and in the future, purchase the highest quality clothing (and ethically sourced made) you can afford (not the disposable clothing that H&M and other sell? Anyway, that was my takeaway from that film. Best regards.

  13. At the university I work at we use the BeGreen pilot whiteboard refillable markers and this product is the definition of greenwashing. It is so frustrating!

    http://www.pilotbegreen.us/products/index.php

    I starting my zero waste journey two months ago and now that school is about to start up I am trying to figure out how to recycle these, and there is no information about what type of plastic they are. I contacted customer service and they had a blanket response of "you recycle them at your local recycling facility". I responded with "I understand that, but in order to do so I need to know what type of plastic it is. Furthermore, I do not think my recycling system will even take this type of plastic anyway." They do not have a take back program and they responded with that they "think" the markers are plastic type 5. As type 5 is usually the colored plastic from container lids I don’t think it is correct and I don’t want to possibly ruin a batch of plastic by putting it in the wrong place. I go through about three refills a week. I need some major advice and help on how to recycle these!!! I know Crayola has a marker recycling program but will they take these plastic clear markers and the refills that I use with them??

  14. Just absolutely love this website!! Thank you so much! To all of you…. all the comments are really intersting too!

  15. Planet Fitness so blatantly greenwashes, it actual makes me laugh. They have high power hand dryers in their bathrooms with this great message about switching to air drying instead of paper towels. It goes into how many trees are cut down and the obnoxious amount of water it takes to produce 1 roll of paper towel…. then you walk out onto the floor and they have 25 garbage cans with 1-2 giant rolls of paper towel atop each one. Not a reusable towel in sight….

  16. As I read your awesome blog, there are huge ads for Clorox bleach on the side of the screen. Evil companies trying to hold on to their dollar while sabotaging your environmental efforts.

  17. Thank you, Kathryn, for critiquing some real life examples of greenwashing! Great training! It’s starting to be difficult to spot as marketers are becoming more deviously sly & subtle about how they greenwash. Take Simple Green cleaning products. Looks okay but ingredients aren’t listed. It contains 2-butoxyethanol which California lists as hazardous. Bad for the environment.

  18. I’ve seen greenwashing happen in a different way – Stella Artois will give you a reusable glass beer chalice if you buy their beer (which is my favourite). In return, they’ll give someone fresh water who needs it. But in reality that’s not even remotely how they go about it, and they are a big enough company to have done that on their own without you "pitching in" by buying it. It’s simply a publicity stunt to make them seem like they care about cleaning water in communities – when really, if they truly did, they’d invest in it and go about their way quietly.

  19. Hi Kathryn, totally love the greenwashing examples you have shown here, it will definitely help readers to understand this better. By the way the new trend is SDG washing, coming across it first hand. It’s so unfortunate.

  20. wow so true about the diapers! I ended up using cloth diapers for baby for same reason. It took a while for my family to stop gifting disposables to baby who does not even use any of that. Even baby bottles were not even used so had to donate out as baby only drinks mommy milk. I got mailed FREE formula from enfamil and had to send a letter to them to stop. The formula company send me a list of ingredients saying their product is better since it has vitamins over regular milk. This is so bad since I do not use any regular milk but my breastmilk that I brew in my chest which is best! Anyways thanks for pointing this out so important!