In an article about greenwashing, a green TV screen hypnotizing a viewer.

How To See Through Greenwashing for the Climate Conscious Consumer

It’s easy to get caught up in 'green' advertising. Here's how to weed out companies that use environmentalism as a brand without putting it into practice.
February 19, 2020
9 mins read

Greenwashing, or the practice of making unsubstantiated claims about the “eco-friendliness” of a product, is by no means a new marketing strategy. Consumers do seem to care about environmental impact: Market studies show that stock prices of a company fluctuate alongside news of their environmental impact. Brands from clothing to food to electronics to skincare are guilty of greenwashing, and many consumers are guilty of falling for it. Knowing when to call B.S. on a brand can keep you from falling into the greenwashing trap, and save you money along the way.

Tip #1: Don’t be fooled by buzzwords

What does it mean when a product says “natural”? “Eco-friendly”? “Green”? The answer is, disappointingly, not much. Yet brands use these buzzwords with great effect: Market studies show that products that use these buzzwords really do sell better. Shoppers want to buy from companies that care about the environment, and greenwashing is an easy way for a company to capitalize on this effect without putting in a lot of effort. Rather than doing sustainability studies and using more expensive production methods and materials, companies can more easily throw a “green” buzzword onto their packaging and reap the benefits.

The key to catching ambiguous labelling and buzzwords is to look for officialness and specificity. A clothing brand can write “sustainably grown cotton” on their label, but they don’t need to pass a sustainability test to do so. Whereas if a product is labelled “USDA Organic,” it must indeed be certified organic (95% of ingredients/materials must be certified organic), or the company faces heavy fines. Most organically-grown ingredients and materials do tend to be more sustainably grown, because farmers must rotate their crops to keep the soil viable and they cannot use harsh chemical pesticides.

The “made from recycled material” label also doesn’t mean much. As Hasan Minhaj revealed in the episode “The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion” on his Netflix show, “Patriot Act,” only the paper tag on certain articles of clothing with the label “Made From Recycled Material” was actually made from recycled material. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees commercial goods, has a page on this marketing trick, but the regulations against it are not very strict.

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You don’t need to do extensive research on a company to find out if their product really is “natural” and “eco-friendly”; simple intuition can go a long way here. The more specific and verifiable a company’s claims are, the more likely they are to be true, because they could get in a lot of trouble by making things up.

Tip #2: Look for not “green” ingredients

Another trick brands commonly use is to highlight their “eco-friendly” ingredients on the front of their packaging and leave the not-so-green ones for the list on the back. Before buying a face wash that touts its “100% natural soy” on the front, check the back to see what unnatural ingredients they’re hiding. Chances are you’ll find the words “synthetic” at least once on the ingredients list, indicating that the product itself is nowhere close to 100% natural.

Tip #3: Recycling is a two-way street

Step one of recycling is doing it properly, which requires a bit more effort than tossing your disposable plastic in the bin. Containers must be completely free of food and other residue, and some regions simply don’t recycle certain classes of plastics. Recycling improperly is sometimes worse than not doing it at all, because it clogs the system and makes recycling more expensive.

Buying recyclable Keurig cups is a great step, but you have to break the cup down into its component parts in order to recycle it. (For coffee-drinkers who have Keurigs, reusable pods exist and are both functional and money-saving.) For Nespresso customers, coffee pods that you can send back for refills is a nice idea, but only if you actually make the time to send them back. These things are easy to do but require just a little extra effort on the part of the consumer.

Step two is to close the loop by purchasing recycled items. Without demand from shoppers for recycled products, companies won’t be incentivized to repurpose old material when creating products from new material is more economical.

Tip #4: Consider the life cycle of a product

A product made from 100% natural materials may not itself be recyclable. Another made with 100% recycled cotton may not have been sustainably sourced. USDA-certified organic foods might be shipped from across the world, where the carbon emissions used to transport the item to your grocery store offsets the benefit from organics. Locally-made items, which escape the carbon cost of transportation once the good is created, might still have been made with ingredients that were shipped from afar. Even if a company is telling the truth about their “sustainable” production methods, that doesn’t tell the whole story; there is plenty of opportunity for waste post-production.

Without doing research, shoppers can consider the future of a product before they buy it. Even if it’s local or organic or recycled, think about where it will end up when you’re done with it. Can you reuse or recycle it? What will happen to the packaging? How long can you keep this product for? The answers to these questions might be more important than the package’s “green” label.

Tip #5: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it! 

This tip may seem obvious, yet when you’re in the shopping aisle and see those canvas shopping bags and bamboo cutlery, you’re still tempted to buy them to replace the ones you already have. If you already have cutlery and a perfectly good tote bag, step one should be using what you already have rather than buying new products. For those who can’t afford to buy cloth bags and fancy flatware, reusing plastic ones a few times works too.

While some brands capitalize on the sustainability trend by selling products that help consumers “reduce waste,” others have taken a surprisingly different track. A good question to ask yourself when a brand makes a claim to sustainability is, how does this affect their bottom line?

Patagonia actively encourages customers to “Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine” their clothing with their common threads initiative. Patagonia has offered recycling programs to customers since 2005, in which customers return products to be “upcycled” and turned into new products. The process is costly and time-consuming, not to mention that they encourage customers not to buy things they don’t absolutely need in the first place. This seems counterintuitive for a corporation whose bottom line depends on them being able to sell enough product. The fact that Patagonia focuses on sustainability even though it doesn’t contribute to their short-term profits indicates that the brand truly cares about their environmental impact.

Tip #6: Some handy resources

If a brand is truly committed to sustainability, it shouldn’t be hard to fact check them. Brands that work hard to offset their environmental impact don’t want their effort to be wasted in terms of profitability, and will usually post impact reports and proof of their commitment to sustainability on their websites. For more general information, there is a plethora of pages designed to help you make better consumer choices.

Rank a Brand compares the sustainability of different food, clothing, electronics and skincare brands, among others. Check out Mother Nature Network for a list of sustainability certificates to look out for along with products they are commonly found on. Conscious Travel Guide has a similar list, with details on the business practices associated with certain labels. Impaakt (a crowdsourced environmental and social sustainability platform) provides real-time impact scores that reflect the social and environmental value of companies, to ensure you buy from, invest in, or work for companies with the most positive contribution to the world.

The Takeaway

It doesn’t take much to be a climate-conscious consumer — all you have to do is take brands’ claims with a grain of salt and avoid buying items that you don’t absolutely need.

Asha MacKay, Wellesley College

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Asha MacKay

Wellesley College

Asha MacKay is, in order of importance: a born-and-raised New Yorker; a lover of podcasts, especially of the NPR/WNYC variety; a thrifter; an oat-milk lover; and convinced she will never learn how to drive.

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