What is greenwashing and how do you spot it?

It feels like every other day a brand is being called out for greenwashing. But what exactly is greenwashing and how can you spot it?

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is when someone (usually a business) claims to be environmentally conscious when actually they’re not making any serious effort to be sustainable.  

It's a form of marketing and PR spin used to persuade the public that an organisation's products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

From advertising to packaging, there are all sorts of ways companies try to make people believe that they’re doing more to protect the environment than they are.  

Deloitte found that nearly one in two people now either don’t know what commitments businesses have made that they can trust, or don’t trust businesses on climate change and sustainability issues at all.

Why is greenwashing bad?

Aside from the obvious reasons of not doing anything to offset emissions or positively impact the planet, organisations use greenwashing tactics to make their products more appealing to potential customers who care about the environment.  

We’re seeing lots of this kind of trickery being unmasked in the press, with big brands like Coke, IKEA and SKIMS recently in the firing line.  

Coca-Cola spent millions of pounds to advertise the fact that some of its bottles are made out of 25 per cent marine plastic, while failing to mention that it is the world’s biggest plastic polluter, according to the CMF.

<p>The claims made on SKIMS packaging</p>
Contradictory claims made on SKIMS packaging - Changing Markets Foundation

While clothing brand SKIMS proudly stated 'I AM NOT PLASTIC' on their packaging despite the small print stating it is plastic type 4 or LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene).

In fact, in 2021 40% of green claims made by businesses were found to be misleading. Luckily, people are becoming more aware of greenwashing and what to look out for.  

Why does greenwashing work?

Over the last 12 months, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people who have adopted a more sustainable lifestyle. Which is great for businesses that are doing their bit to promote a circular economy.  

But some brands want to tap into that market without doing the hard part.  

I’m sure you can think of a handful of ads you’ve seen recently that feature:

  • Buzzwords like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘recyclable’, or ‘sustainably-made’
  • Lots of green or neutral shades  
  • Imagery centred around nature or animals

All of these tactics play on subconscious associations with sustainability and our emotional affinity with nature. And don’t brands know it.  

Now, that’s not to say that all brands that use these things are guilty of greenwashing – it's the business that don’t back up their claims with hard facts that you need to look out for.  

How can you spot greenwashing?

Here are three ways to help separate the green warriors from the greenwashers:  

  • Vague claims and unclear language without stats or facts to back them up
  • Using own brand eco labels, or labels not associated with an accredited organisation (Primark Cares, we’re looking at you)  
  • Attempting to hide or omit certain information (like only focussing on certain products rather than the company as a whole)  

How can you combat greenwashing?

It’s important to remember that as a consumer, you vote with every purchase you make. We do have the power to change things for the better, and here’s how:

  • Do your due diligence and make sure the businesses you’re buying from really are practising what they preach (look for in-depth impact pages or reports)  
  • Shop with brands that focus on recycling and repairs, like Patagonia  
  • Try to purchase fewer items!

Are there any laws against greenwashing?

There is currently no specific anti-greenwashing legislation in the UK.  

However, the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) released a Green Claims Code at the end of 2021. Their aim is to help businesses consider the full life cycle of their products and tackle misleading claims.

Any business that fails to comply with the law could face action from the CMA in 2022.  

Help us call out greenwashing! Share any examples you see with us on social, or drop us an email at hello@jobsforgood.io