Greenwashing is “the act of providing the public or investors with misleading or outright false information about the environmental impact of a company’s products and operation,” according to Investopedia. For example, you may see a company use words like eco-friendly, green, or sustainable or even made from recycled materials or “all natural” without any more information on what is meant by all natural or what those recycled materials are.
Or we as consumers may not be told how much of a “green” material is in a product. As organic mattress company Naturepedic writes in an article for Green America, “companies tout materials like soybean foam or eco-foam” in mattresses. But then if you do research, you may learn that soybean foam can contain as little as 3-percent soy content. “It’s not uncommon for these ‘friendlier’ foams to consist of off-gassing petrochemicals,” Naturepedic says.
The same goes for bamboo bedding and clothing. Bamboo, since it is fast growing and natural, may seem like a sustainable choice—until one looks at all of the water and processes used to get the bamboo from a tree-like plant to a thread and/or fabric.
Investopedia reports that greenwashing is an attempt by companies to capitalize on the growing demand for environmentally-friendly products and practices. Think of hotels that ask you to hang and reuse your towels and not change your bedding every day. (This appeals to people’s concern for the earth, but also helps the companies save a lot of money in laundry and water and power.) Or think of the big petrochemical companies who have also rebranded themselves of champions of the environment and on the cutting edge clean energy research.
Companies greenwash because they either are trying to cave to consumer demands or want to make themselves look good and responsible. But it really all goes back to economics. If they look like a sustainable company—and you have strong feelings about sustainability—then you are liable to keep using their products and services.
Where Greenwashing Happens and What It Looks Like
Greenwashing may show up in a company’s annual report; a mission or vision statement; in their advertising, marketing, or public relations; on their packaging; or with their (alleged) partnerships.
It may be when words like “green” and “sustainable” are used without any proof of what those words mean. Or it could be a claim that something isn’t in their products (thus making them sustainable, natural, or superior) but the “omitted” item may be something that would never be in that product in the first place or the item may be something legally banned and isn’t used anywhere anyway.
Greenwashing may appear in deceptive imagery. For example, a bar of soap may have a nature scene on it or say “100% natural” on some kind of company-created seal (but not from any globally-recognized certifying body).
Greenwashing can also occur when a company has only one product they are calling green or sustainable but the rest of their products clearly are not. Factory cross-contamination may happen even if the “green” product started out in a purer state.
How to Vet a Company’s Greenness
The best way to vet a company is to look at what they belong to and what they support. (Are they members of Green America and 1% for the Planet, for example?) Do they belong to environmental organizations and are they climate advocates?
Does their annual sustainability report and their website use facts to back up their claims? For example, instead of saying, we are working to cut our use of energy and water in our manufacturing, do you see numbers and targets and goals with dates for getting there
Does the company have any reputable third-party certifications or have they been mentioned in third-party reports? (The Environmental Protection Agency has a Safer Choice program, and there is Green Seal and UL ECOLOGO® as possible options.)
And lastly are they fully transparent about what’s in their products? Words like natural flavoring or natural spices, humanely raised, fresh, artisan are all vague.
If you need one last example of greenwashing, the World Health Organization created this short video ad about the way Big Tobacco greenwashes.
Informed consumers make better choices regarding what is best for yourself, those in your life, and for the environment. And that’s what being a Whole Champion is all about.