For average consumers, terms like 'natural' and 'eco-safe' are confusing as they don't reveal much about the product's environmental impact.
You’re at your local supermarket and faced with two choices. A pack of your regular brand of soft drink sits beside another bottle that looks quite different. It’s swathed in green packaging and has ‘natural sugar’ emblazoned on it. Feeling like you’re making the healthy choice, you reach for the second bottle.
You might have just become a victim of greenwashing.
From coffee beans and hemp clothing to compostable plastic and edible cutlery, going green is one of the fastest growing trends today. More than 65 of global consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products, and nine in ten of them are willing to switch to sustainable brands if price and quality were equal. Brands, realising the opportunity, are making sustainability a part of their marketing agenda, a trend witnessed in the spate of goods claiming to be ‘natural’, ‘organic’, and ‘biodegradable’.
Since these terms aren’t well-defined, however, they are open to subjective interpretation. For the average consumer, they can be very confusing, especially when label ingredients don’t reveal much about the product’s safety or environmental impact. In the absence of supporting data on ingredients, certifications, and specific details about what sustainability entails, it becomes even harder to tell genuine claims from misleading advertising.
Looked at one way, the proliferation of green products in mainstream markets is a positive sign, indicating that there is a growing shift towards more eco-friendly, responsible consumerism. This has brands rushing to meet the demand, investing in marketing and advertising to create an image of an ethical company that cares more for the planet than it really does. But, in a context where companies are not legally obligated to make sustainability a business priority, and where there are no strict regulations defining the use of claims to sustainability, consumers become vulnerable to greenwashing as it is not clear which brands meet higher ethical and environmental standards.
What is Greenwashing?
A term coined in the 1980s, greenwashing is a marketing practice used to lead customers to believe that a company’s products are more environmentally-friendly than they actually are. While it may sometimes be unintentional, very often, companies actively invest marketing and PR budgets to create a false green image.
But, more customers are seeing though the false claims, educating themselves about the products they use, and demanding that brands walk the talk when it comes to environmental sustainability. The Swedish fashion giant H&M’s Conscious Collection, made with sustainable materials like organic cotton, recycled polyester and Tencel, sounded like a dream come true for eco-conscious shoppers. However, the brand came under fire from the Norwegian Consumer Authority which accused it of misleading customers with insufficient information about the sustainable nature of its collection. Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, too, attracted criticism in 2018, when it announced its vision to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. Environmental watchdog, Greenpeace, was quick to point out that material substitution was not enough to stop pollution from single-use plastics and accused Nestlé’s promise of lacking transparency, clear targets, and significant investment.
The Sins of Greenwashing
In 2010, researchers at TerraChoice examined close to 5,000 environmental claims made by retailers in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Of the 2,219 products they surveyed, 98 per cent committed at least one of what TerraChoice would go on to call the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’. The seven sins are:
- Hidden trade-off: Choosing to highlight a small set of environmental issues (eg. printing with plant-based ink) while ignoring other larger, more detrimental issues that give the product a bigger carbon footprint, such as non-recyclable, multi-layered packaging.
- Sin of no proof: Making environmental claims that are not backed up by data on the label, test reports on the website, or third-party certification. Claiming something is sustainably sourced without offering any explanation about the brand’s supply chain or providing any certification is an example.
- Vagueness: Making claims that are too broad or ambiguous to be deciphered by the consumer. For example, a plastic bag that claims to be biodegradable but does not specify the time period or conditions needed for degradation.
- Irrelevance: An environmental claim that while truthful, is unimportant or unhelpful to consumers looking for eco-friendly products. A CFC-free claim by a company making refrigerators or air-conditioners is an example since India has phased out CFCs under the Montreal Protocol.
- Lesser of two evils: A product that claims to be greener than other products in its category when the whole category is environmentally unfriendly. Fuel-efficient SUVs or cigarettes made of organic tobacco are examples.
- Worshipping false labels: A product that uses fake labels or claims to have third-party certifications when no such endorsements exist.
- Fibbing: Making environmental claims that are simply false, such as products that claim to be energy-efficient when they are not.
Avoid falling into the trap of Greenwashing
- Familiarise yourself with existing eco labels: This helps you know which ones to look out for and which ones are phoneys so you can always make the responsible choice.
- Pictures don’t tell the whole story: Brands often create the illusion of eco-friendliness with imagery of the earth or nature and ample use of the colour green. The discerning customer looks beyond the images and reads the fine print as closely as she looks at the big picture.
- Go deeper: Today, everybody tells you that sustainability is at the core of their business and that they are striving to reduce their emissions. But a look at the ingredients and the order in which they are listed will help you substantiate these claims.
- Educate yourself: Learn about the most common red flags in personal care and household cleaning products. Understand the various label terms these ingredients appear under. For instance, the label terms ‘fragrance’ and ‘preservatives’ encapsulate several chemicals that are known to be allergens and irritants.
- Read the fine print: Pay special attention to health and safety warnings on every package.
- Do the brand test: Rather than buy one certified-organic product from a brand not otherwise manufacturing sustainable products, look for brands with sustainability as their core mission. Such companies are committed to having a positive environmental impact across the value chain with the adoption of a lifecycle approach. Whether it is through 100 per cent organic ingredients across product lines, take-back programmes for their packaging or other similar measures, these brands make it easy for consumers to live a sustainable lifestyle. A truly sustainable brand is also transparent about its practices, encourages consumer feedback and open communication, and publishes reports of its impact.
- Don’t fall for optics: Many brands scramble today to project a green image by associating with environmental causes such as beach clean-ups and tree-planting. However, a closer look at their manufacturing policies and packaging might reveal unsustainable practices.