As more consumers awaken to the reality of climate change and the importance of making the shift to more sustainable choices to lessen our consumption’s impact on the environment, this newfound energy is at risk of being dampened by a giant blob called greenwashing.
The term first emerged in 1986 in an essay written by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in the United States when he realized how some companies, a hotel resort in particular, was falsely promoting to be environmentally conscious with their towel reuse campaign, when bigger issues of the environment were not being considered.
Today, the problem seems to be even bigger and studies which mean consumers need to keep educating themselves or risk becoming victims of greenwashing. Recent research by the Competitions and Market Authority (CMA) in the United Kingdom has found that 40 per cent of sustainability related claims could be a case of greenwashing, which means businesses are misleading consumers into believing they are being sustainable through their purchases when they are not.
Awareness of what truly is sustainable can help consumers make better decisions and wiser choices. But how can one differentiate what could a greenwash and which companies are truly ‘walking the talk’.
Here are some of the markers to watch out for before making that purchase:
- Felicity Spors, the Head of Sustainable Development Finance of Gold Standard, wrote to the World Economic Forum site, identifying two main forms of greenwashing: One is selective disclosure where the company puts forward in its advertisements some positive information about its products’ environmental performance while hiding the other negative impacts, and thereby disregarding other important environmental concerns.
The other type is symbolic action or claims of supporting other causes while within the company other activities continue to support businesses that harm the environment. For example offsetting a company’s carbon emissions would probably a positive action, but investments of the company to other businesses continue to create negative impact to the environment, Spors commented.
- Tessa Clarke, co-founder of Olio, a food sharing up make her own list of tips to identify the ‘great’ from the ‘greenwash’. She noted, ‘the most sustainable purchase is the one you don’t make’, pointing out that no matter how many ecological credits a product may have, the better options are always to reuse that already which are existing, borrow, or buy pre-loved items instead.
Clarke also took aim to ‘compostable packaging’ claims where products highlight the biodegradability of its packaging, but does not inform the buyers where can these types of packaging go. Leaving them in landfills as with other waste is not a guarantee of environmentally-friendly result when landfills continue to emit methane gases. And while many boasts of the sustainable sources of their products and their composites, the end-of-life of products are not often disclosed, what happens to them and where they are disposed.
- Claims of zero emissions, net zero, carbon neutral and the like should be taken with a grain of salt and should be further examined as to how the company has actually achieved such targets. The method with which they have come to cut their emissions may point to actions that are short of transparency. For example, Clarke mentioned, purchasing carbon offsets may not be truly leading to a positive impact, diverting the company’s other business activities that continue to put pressure on the health of the environment.
Following the study, the UK’s CMA has provided six principles that can be initially applied to prevent brands from making false claims. It suggested that companies must ensure: accuracy; clarity of claims and understood by consumers unanimously; important information are not omitted or hidden deliberately; ‘fair and meaningful’ comparisons can be made between products; full lifecycle of the product is accounted for; and that claims can be substantiated.
As there are many misleading claims as there are companies, it is important to have benchmarks that fully disclose their activities and verified by authorized and trusted organizations. At present while no existing law would stop greenwashers from committing these sins, education and constant vigilance from discerning consumers can help from not being victimized by greenwashers.