As we focus on environmentally friendly alternatives, companies are adapting and creating green products, but are they as eco friendly as they seem? Liana Shaw discusses greenwashing.
This style of rebranding, promoting or advertising something to make it seem more green or sustainable than it really is, is actually extremely clever (as in, it’s working). The days of brands trying to get our devotion is growing ever more intense – in the decade I’ve spent in marketing, we’ve never been as swamped with choice than we are now. Big brands know that we are starting to look for more transparent and eco-friendly companies that are championing the environment and appearing to think more about their practices in environmental and ethical issues. More and more shoppers are looking for companies with soul, brands that we can see are talking the talk and walking the walk.
But here’s the catch – how do we weed out the companies and products that are actually adding to the world’s problem whilst masquerading as a thoughtful eco company, from those that are really trying to be a force for change?
The packaging and branding switch up is a first red flag, or at least warrants enough to do a bit more research on the product. Toiletries and food and drink products are a key culprit – you’ll see a lot of greener shades and muted earth tones, designs with leaves and trees or nature inspired motifs. Items might be packaged in ‘cardboard’ or brown/ neutral colours. Yay, that means it’s recyclable and good for the environment? Not necessarily. Plenty of natural looking packaging is designed that way to make you think you are going to be helping the environment. But turn it over and check the label, unfortunately, more often than not, it can’t be easily or at all recycled (cough, cough, Jersey Dairy!)
The power of words in selling have always been extremely important. But the kicker here is that you’ll find more vague marketing buzzwords than ever that are telling you your shampoo, laundry detergent, stationery, re-usable cups, clothing etc are ‘green’. Key words include: all-natural, bio, pure, clean, simple, eco, planet, life, honest, conscious... All-natural sounds great, except that uranium, arsenic, mercury and formaldehyde can also be included as all-natural products.
"The power of words in selling have always been extremely important. But the kicker here is that you’ll find more vague marketing buzzwords than ever..."
Looking for third party accreditation is really helpful when sussing out the ethics of your products, such as the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade, the Leaping Bunny etc. Our eyes and mind are drawn to the familiar circular shape and often green colour of well-known stamps, so when we see something similar, we are likely to think that it symbolises an eco-conscious ethos too. Many brands are cottoning on to this advertising ploy and in the same way they use words and packaging to make us think we have a legit eco product, they use these ‘green’ style stamps or symbols to try and give sway. If a reusable water bottle says it’s made from recycled plastic bottles, if it’s got a big green recycled stamp on it, then it may help to look further. Reading the label or doing research may show that it’s only 10% recycled plastic. Whilst any recycling is helpful and it’s not illegal to advertise in this way, you’d still be buying a product that is mostly new plastic.
It’s so easy to pick up eco looking products from brands that we love and trust, or be excited to try new, innovative looking companies. However, it’s always good to do a bit more research. Many newer companies and brands are owned by the Top 3 plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle. Trying to be a caring consumer, many people are nowadays more likely to buy products if we think they are owned by smaller, independent, family run or local companies. Again, a quick look into the company often shows links to other companies who are less than savoury in their ethics.
So what do we need? Whilst I’m all for choice, what we simply need is less. It’s great that many clothing brands are bringing out eco lines of clothing, but do we really need another line of basics, even if it is 100% organic cotton? The cotton is more than likely to have a huge carbon footprint, have used the 20,000 litres of water needed to produce that one t-shirt and a pair of jeans (true fact!) and be made in a sweatshop in Vietnam, but hey, it’s organic, so it must be eco-friendly – nope, that’s greenwashing for you. What would be better is the company taking their old clothes that end up in landfill and recycling the fibres into new clothing instead. Reduce and reuse. Have less. Greenwashing is dangerous, because it’s telling us that we are doing a good job as a society. But if anything, we’ve never been in more danger.
Hopefully you’ll be able to spot a few key greenwashing ploys. It may seem cumbersome, to do a bit of research of your own before you buy, but once I did, I couldn’t believe how many products and companies I thought matched my values, were actually doing the opposite. It’s not about a few of us doing it perfectly, we need everyone to just do it, even imperfectly – and it’s time to show brands that they can’t fool us.