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7 ways to spot greenwashing


Written by envoPAP team

31st May 2022

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2 minute read

The world is in a race against time to cut down carbon emissions so the Earth can remain habitable for future generations. Environmental degradation is at an all-time high and mother nature’s wrath is beginning to show itself in the form of frequent heat waves, hurricanes, floods and more. Since the onset of Covid-19, everyone started taking climate change more seriously and ‘sustainability’ has become the most important buzzword for businesses globally. With the biggest conglomerates on the planet pledging to reach ‘net zero’ emissions between 2030 and 2050, we are witnessing the mass adoption of sustainability. Green has become the new gold, but let’s remember all that glitters…….

What is greenwashing?

Now, one can see the carbon emissions of a flight, a taxi ride and even meals at some restaurants! The fight to save our planet is a collective one and every business wants to be seen doing the right thing. Sadly, some things are easier said than done and without a doubt, we have all been victims of ‘greenwashing’. It’s a marketing malpractice where companies trick their consumers into believing their products are truly sustainable by using trendy terms like ‘eco-friendly’,‘carbon-neutral’, etc. These lying companies are doing a great disservice to the global climate effort in general and more specifically, to companies that offer genuinely sustainable or ‘green’ products and services. If you want to know how to spot greenwashing, we have compiled 7 ways to do so, in the greater interest of humanity. 

Fake Claims

This is the most commonly practised form of greenwashing and often the easiest to deploy. ‘Eco-friendly’, ‘sustainable’, ‘low-carbon’, ‘carbon-neutral’ and other similar terms that are difficult to quantify are being used extensively across all advertising channels. In such cases, the ‘how’ becomes even more important than the ‘what’. It’s very easy to christen a product as the ‘world’s greenest’ or the ‘world’s first carbon-neutral’ whatever it is, but exceedingly difficult to prove the same using scientific parameters that are globally accepted. One should try to check the company’s website for additional information on the product, and if nothing can substantiate its green claims, then the relevant regulatory body should be notified, like the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) in the United Kingdom. The watchdog banned a Ryanair ad in 2019  for claiming they had the lowest emissions among European airlines, without sufficient evidence.

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Misleading Imagery

​​A picture is worth a thousand words, and if it conveys a false message then it’s the proverbial equivalent of telling a thousand lies. Some of the biggest polluting companies on the planet are guilty of using this to drive sales and amplify their brand image. If you’re wondering how to spot greenwashing with the help of imagery, it’s vital to establish a clear link between the image used and the company or product in question. For example, if you see an ad of a bright red diesel car photographed in the lush green Amazionian rainforest, you may associate that brand with afforestation or a similar form of environmental conservation. In reality, that car brand most likely has nothing to do with reducing the Earth’s carbon footprint and in fact, is emitting excess carbon into the atmosphere!

Concealing Information

Consumers deserve the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. When a company claims their products are 100% sustainable, there’s a 99% chance that it’s a lie. It’s vital to understand that from the sourcing of the raw material, all the way to its end-of-life, a product goes through multiple stages in its life. For it to be 100% eco-friendly at every step of the journey, multiple sets of external variables need to be thoroughly and totally sustainable. Does it still sound as easy as inserting the text into a cheeky image or design? A shirt may be made using 100% recycled fabrics, but what about the sourcing and supply chain? What about the packaging? What about the overall carbon emissions of the company? Every bit matters, hence, every bit must be accounted for and represented in the narrative - good, bad or ugly.   

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image source : https://www.shutterstock.com/image-vector/infographic-carbon-offset-concept-planting-trees-1412034770

Carbon Offsetting

To effectively identify greenwashing, it is important to know about the different ways in which a company could become carbon-neutral. Company X is a world’s largest producer of plastic tableware and also carbon neutral at the same time. How can a plastic producer, that by its very business model, must emit carbon, be carbon-neutral? The answer is carbon-offsetting. It is the practice of paying another entity to absorb carbon in order to compensate for your own carbon emissions. In April 2022, the Earth’s atmospheric carbon was at its highest recorded level in human history. At such times, claims of carbon-neutrality via offsetting are really upsetting. Ethically speaking, companies should try to clean up their supply chains and ensure they emit none to minimal amounts of carbon, rather than piggybacking on the carbon credits they purchase thanks to their handsome profits that come at the expense of the health of our planet. These PR wins hold no meaning in the grand scheme of things and are likely to be judged harshly in retrospect. 

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image source : https://www.terrafiniti.com/certified-greenwashing-real-greenwash-kitemark/

Faux Certificates 

Certifications exist to guarantee that necessary standards are being met to ensure quality management (ISO 9001) and/or environmental management (ISO14001), for example. ISO certifications are globally recognised and always a reassuring spot on product and company literature. On the other hand, if you were to see a label called ‘100% natural’ or ‘100% green’, it is likely to raise some red flags in your mind. This is one of the easiest ways to spot a greenwashing business because there are so many that are guilty of it. It’s funny, but in a sad way. It’s important to ask yourself what kind of objectively quantifiable parameters must have been met to be called ‘100% Natural’. B Corp, 1% For The Planet, FSC and Eco-Label are some examples leading environmental certifications that are doing unparalleled work in giving the Earth a fighting chance in our fight against climate change.     

End-of-life

For our planet to have a fighting chance at perpetuity, we need to mass-adopt the circular economy immediately. In fact, some scientists are of the opinion that we’re already late. But at the intersection of optimism and pessimism lies realism, and realistically, it is our best bet. For the circular economy to work, it is crucial to close the loop, whereby a product returns safely to nature. Since paper can be recycled several times, the material is circular by nature. Contrastingly, plastic is not. One needs to understand messaging like ‘Made using recycled plastic’ in its entirety, which is, although it is made using recycled plastic, this product is still going to a landfill or an incineration pit! The end-of-life of a product is as important as its raw material when judging its sustainability. 

Conclusion

Every greenwashing business should be ashamed of themselves because they are trying to rake in profits by fooling consumers and destroying our planet. Consequently, they are involving unsuspecting consumers in their meticulously planned environmental degradation. This space needs tighter regulations, better implementation and harsher punishments. Ultimately, the success or failure of any greenwashed advertising is contingent upon consumer behaviour. I urge you all to scan companies intelligently and undertake comprehensive research before making a purchase decision. After all, nobody likes to be fooled, let alone pay for it too! 

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