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Greenwashing: The Companies That Are Lying To You

Updated: Apr 18, 2021

Originally, 2020 started as the year the world went green. When the decade began, we officially entered the Decade of Action': a 10-year deadline to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), before climate change becomes irreversible. It seemed as though things were finally looking up, with business giants like Amazon even taking a stance. However, most efforts were abandoned upon the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the spotlight no longer focused on being eco-friendly, but staying safe.

Unfortunately, the effects of global warming didn’t stop just because we did, and the world experienced a myriad of natural disasters: the Australian bushfires; flooding across Asia; record-breaking hurricanes, and devastating drought across the continents. And due to the nature of global warming, even if the planet’s emissions came to an immediate stop, the consequences would continue. So we have to start thinking beyond that and plan for the future.

Think about what is going to end up in your garbage, or on landfill sites, that continue to contribute to global warming, even after you’ve finished using them. Think about who you’re banking with; are they donating their millions (your money) to the right causes? More importantly, think about what’s in your closet. What brands are you buying into, and are they being honest with you?

What is Greenwashing?

Although first coined in the 1980s, the idea of ‘Greenwashing’ is more prevalent in business today than ever before. Increasingly so within the fashion industry, sustainable clothing becomes more and more sought after.

Greenwashing can be defined as:

Providing misleading information or representations of a company to trick consumers into thinking the business (or organization is more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Although extreme cases of greenwashing are illegal - as it is essentially false advertising - many businesses get away with it. It’s very easy to mislead people without actually lying.

Why is Greenwashing bad?

The problem with these kinds of business tactics is that it deceives customers into thinking they are doing good for the environment when in some cases they could be contributing to the exact opposite.

For example: you choose to buy a certain brand of moisturizer at a higher price, as it was advertised as ‘eco-friendly’ and the cheaper option was not. You then discover that the product actually includes non-sustainable palm oil: an extraction process that seriously damages the Amazon rainforest. Not only were you duped out of spending more money for no reason, but you’re actually causing more damage to the planet.

Companies use this technique simply because it makes them look good. If they appear to be giving back to the environment, especially as the threat of climate change worsens, it can persuade many consumers to choose their brand over others.

What’s more, they can also use this tactic to charge more. Many truly sustainable fashion and toiletry products are often sold at a higher price because the ingredients or fabrics are of a higher quality, and the product is made to last. However, fashion companies, in particular, are using this niche to sell their unethically and cheaply made clothing for more than it is worth.

(Screenshot via Good On You)

How do they do it?

There are a few ways that a company may greenwash; one obvious trick is when a business uses green packaging or imagery of leaves and nature to insinuate that their product is kind for the planet.

Another example is the use of false claims and labels. Companies adhere to using buzzwords - such as ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, ‘organic’, and ‘recycled’ - yet contribute no proof to back up these claims anywhere on the product or their website.

An extra cunning way of greenwashing is when the surface-level claims on a product are true, but the company itself is causing way more detriment to the planet/people behind the scenes than their ‘sustainable’ products can outbalance. For example; they may trade with fossil fuel companies; they may manufacture their products unethically; they might even actually have really high emission rates due to the way the business practices.

However, it only takes one complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for them to investigate a company, so get snitching bitches.

Examples of Greenwashing

Some of the biggest brands in the world have been called out for using greenwashing tactics, one famous example being energy company BP. In 2019, the company launched their “Keep Advancing” and “Possibilities Everywhere” campaigns, which acknowledged the need for a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases. With New York City declaring a total climate emergency the same year, there’s no wonder why so many people wanted to believe the promises that had been made.

Unfortunately, BP remains one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases in the world and continues to send 96% of the annual expenditure on non-renewable sources for gas and energy, with a measly 4% directed to low-carbon initiatives.

A notorious example of greenwashing within the fashion industry comes from fast-fashion giant H&M and their ‘Conscious’ collection. The brand stated that their new collection - released in 2020 - was made from sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled polyester, and Tencel - all of which include those clever men greenwashing buzzwords. However they did not explain the breakdown of the fabrics, providing zero proof that the new line was any more sustainable than their other clothes.

The company also came under fire last year due to its involvement in the Bangladeshi Workers scandal. As Covid-19 regulations closed hundreds of retail stores, many fashion companies halted their clothes production processes until they reopened. However, H&M was one of the businesses that initially refused to pay the Indian workers who made the clothes for the products that had already been produced but not transported. After uproar across social media, the company was forced to pay its workers - and rightly so.

H&M is also rumoured to burn their dead-stock clothes, instead of recycling them or donating them, so the brand doesn’t lose its value. Although the company has since denied these claims, it's enough to make your stomach turn.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon has also been called out for greenwashing. In 2019, Jeff Bezos made his Climate Pledge to be carbon neutral by 2040 - 10 years after the UN deadline. However, Bezos was soon criticized for not being explicit in exactly how Amazon was going to do this.

Moreover, ignoring the fact that this billion-dollar empire continues to sell technology to fossil fuel harvesters, such as Shell and BP, which in itself causes huge detriment to the planet, the companies emissions actually rose 15% in the exact same year they released their pledge. Embarrassing, right?

It would be foolish not to mention Bezos’ Earth Fund, to which he donated $10 billion of his own money - 7.6% of his entire net worth. However, this information becomes a little dampened by the fact that his company’s carbon footprint equates to the amount of emissions from all of Norway. Again, just embarrassing.

How do I spot greenwashing?

Due to the sly nature of greenwashing, it can often be hard to identify. So here are some tips to help you:

1. Always check for proof

Avoid reading into the stereotypical buzzwords, and find proof that only sustainable fabrics or ingredients are being used. This can be found either on the packaging or labels, or on the company website. Businesses that are truly looking out for the planet will always be transparent with where their products come from.

2. Look for certifications

I mean real certifications. PETA, Fair Trade, EcoCert, B Corp status, GOTS certified cotton are all certifications that should be highly sought after, for these demonstrate background checks on fabrics, ethical manufacturing processes, and cruelty-free products.

3. Shop independent

Rather than favoring sustainable collections from pre-existing fast fashion brands, why not choose a company that holds sustainability at its core? This way, you are not only obtaining an eco-friendly product, but you are also investing in a company that is working towards giving back to the planet.

Helpful apps

Some people have done most - if not all - of the work for you, and have created some really helpful apps to help you track and identify companies that aren’t as sustainable as they make themselves out to be.

On this list are also some apps that can help you become more eco-friendly in other avenues of your life, such as plastic consumption or diet.

Good On You - A wondrous app that rates companies based on their effort to tackle their carbon footprint. Find out how your favorite brands have scored and discover new ones too.

My Little Plastic Footprint - a useful way of tracking how much plastic you’re using. You can even set yourself goals to reduce your plastic consumption!

Oroeco - See how your daily decisions impact your carbon footprint and set yourself targets to become more eco friendly.

EcoCred - Another app to help you track and monitor your own carbon footprint so you can help the environment.

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