Greenwashing: The Basics

If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you’re the sort of person who buys products labelled “natural”, “organic”, “sustainable” or “earth friendly”. It’s a small, simple way we can help reduce our impact on the planet. Right?

Well, yes. But often, you’re simply falling victim to “greenwashing”.

What is greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” refers to a marketing technique that spruiks a product’s eco-credentials, even though the product may offer only a slight environmental advantage, or – in some cases – none at all. The phenomenon has been escalating since the early nineties and these days is used to sell everything from fly spray to carpet; a 2011 study by TerraChoice found that 95% of American “green” products are being greenwashed.

In 2012, Australian Guy Pearse published Greenwash: Big Brands and Corporate Scams to expose an epidemic of poor marketing but also to help “consumers pick the truly green businesses from the greenwashers, and to demand a higher environmental standard from all”.


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Properly green or just greenwashed?

As consumers, we’re probably most vulnerable to the eco-label greenwash technique: bombarded by choice, we rely on key words and visual cues to help us make our purchasing decisions. And we’ve almost been conditioned: the green-coloured label with a picture of planet Earth or a leaf motif means the product inside is good, it’s natural, it contains less harmful chemicals and it’s better for the planet.

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But is it? How can you tell if that product with the green label really is a better choice? Sometimes taking a closer look can help.

  • Why do you think this product is green? Is it because the brand or product name contains the word “natural”, “pure”, or “enviro-”? (Did you know that in the eight years to 2012, IP Australia granted 2,267 trademarks incorporating terms such as “green”, “eco”, “clean”, “energy”, “enviro-”, and “nature”?)
  • Look for other clues: ingredients lists will show if a “natural” product is in fact loaded with potentially harmful chemicals. If it was made overseas, consider the food miles involved. How much wasteful packaging is included? Is the packaging recycled or recyclable?
  • Know your labels. The best way to work out if a product’s claims have been substantiated is to look for third-party accreditation logos. But beware: not all of these are credible. Most eco-labels require products to conform to certain standards in order to gain certification, but some are made up by the product-marketing spin doctors.

Some common greenwashing terms

Here’s a brief look at some of the common green credentials we look for when we’re out shopping, and some tips on how to verify them.

Organic – this is probably the most overused word on food-labelling these days. It’s loaded with implications of health and wellbeing and promotes strong environmental sensibilities. No pesticides here! However, the sad fact is that the word “organic” can be bandied about meaninglessly. In many cases, it’s part of a product’s brand name. The only way to be sure an “organic” food product meets a trusted standard is to look for a dependable certification – namely, Australian Certified Organic (Australia’s largest certifier for organic and biodynamic produce) or NASAA. If you don’t see these labels on food, the word “organic” could imply that the product – or some of its components – is simply derived from living matter. Or it might mean nothing at all.

Dolphin-safe/pole and line caught/FAD-free – no-one wants to think about dead dolphins while they eat their tuna-and-mayonnaise sandwich. That’s why we all choose dolphin-safe tuna. But unsustainable harvesting methods mean that all sorts of marine fauna, including sharks and turtles, fall victim to tuna fishing. And overfishing means that several species, such as yellowfin and bigeye, are under threat. That little “dolphin-safe” logo isn’t enough anymore: Greenpeace advises shoppers to look for “pole and line” or “FAD-free” canned tuna products, which are harvested using more sustainable methods with less bycatch. (“FAD” stands for “fish aggregation devices”, a fancy term for big nets that scoop up marine life indiscriminately.) And look for the species name: choose skipjack and albacore. But before you approach that daunting tuna aisle, check out Greenpeace’s excellent guide to sustainable canned tuna brands.

Sustainable – this one gets whacked on everything from fabric to furniture, and implies that the manufacturing process doesn’t harm the environment or devour precious natural resources. According to the ACCC, “for a practice to be sustainable, it must be able to be sustained indefinitely”. When assessing a product’s sustainability claims, consider the environmental impact of all stages of the product’s lifecycle – from raw materials and emissions/pollution caused during production to disposal/recyclability.

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Do your research

As well as being morally reprehensible, greenwashing is actually in breach of consumer law. But it’s more than that: it takes away from consumers’ ability to effect change by choosing products that have a lower environmental impact. Rather than being blinded by the greenwash, we need to take a proactive approach: read labels, make educated decisions, check ingredient lists, follow up on eco-label accreditations. Some companies out there are environmentally responsible and committed to the green cause – we just have to learn how to spot the fake claims and recognise the legitimate ones.

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This article  was originally posted on our sister website Otter as Greenwash: how to spot it

Author: Gabrielle Chariton. Gabrielle is a Sydney-based freelance writer. 

Feature image: United Soybean Board

Images via Unsplash

Gabrielle Chariton

Author Gabrielle Chariton

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Rosie Poulier says:

    Hi there, is there a neat little word like ‘greenwashing’ that refers to ethical trading? I’ve seen reference to ‘bluewashing’ in uni literature, referring to the use of the United Nations as a reputation, but is there one more common you may suggest looking into? Thank you, adore the work you do

  • Green washing is a massive problem and the clothing industry is one of the worst polluters on earth despite the huge number of retailers claiming green credentials. One terrible example of green washing is H&M claiming that they are becoming more sustainable thought sourcing more organic cotton. Their entire husness model is completely unsustainable since it relies on people buying new clothes as often as possible, preferably every week. One rarely considered by-product of the clothing industry is the volume of waste created when discarding clothes, which is ludicrously high. H&M and other major retail chains encouraging customers to constantly consume more cheap product should never be rated as anything other than fundamentally unsustainable and a poor choice for the planet.

  • Can your team please look into the product in this article?
    http://www.byronbaycaptured.com.au/biodegradable.html
    My community is lucky to host many festivals and we are grappling with water bottle waste and Splendour bought into this product…
    It sounds like a load of greenwash to me! I’d love to know what you think:)

    • Gordon Renouf Gordon Renouf says:

      Hi Sasha
      Thanks for getting in touch. Assessing whether this water bottle is making valid claims or not is not something we have the skills to do at the moment. This is one of the reasons that we like products that are certified or accredited – by appropriate services (organic standards, Good Environmental Choice Australia, Ethical Clothing Australia etc).

      I’ve forwarded your question to some experts we’re in contact with and will let you know if they have any info.

      Best

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