Greenwashing: When being “eco-friendly” isn’t enough

Most companies are more shady than you think.

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Hannah Nguyen

The environment is a factor that many people take when they’re trying to do good, but it ‘s also a factor many companies take to mislead their customers.

Sometimes, things that are “environmentally friendly” are actually the worst for our planet. 

As people begin to educate themselves on how they could leave a better impact on the environment, they often end up buying into misleading claims.

The term greenwashing was introduced by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. Greenwashing is a type of green marketing that claims that a company’s ethics or products are environmentally friendly. In truth, their business promotes the opposite. 

TYPES OF GREENWASHING

There are 5 types of greenwashing that you may have seen in your everyday life. Companies use this as a way to get more customers to buy their products or support their brand. Most consumers are interested in buying more sustainable products and if their favorite brands are claiming that they’re being eco-friendly, they may think that they’re getting everything they want. In actuality, they’re not.

1. Green Imagery

In commercials, they may have a model walking through a rainforest, making it appear as though the product is made from and for the earth with its fruity scent and green-colored packaging. As consumers, we make the mistake of believing that packaging with earth-tones or leaves or advertisements where the product is in nature means that it’s better for their environment. While it may seem that way with their marketing, that doesn’t always mean they’re 100% better for the planet.

2. Misleading Claims

Some products may claim that they are “Certified,” “better for the planet,” “Chemical-free,” or “Non-toxic.” However, those statements can be self-declared. If the statements are vague or subjective (I.e., Which chemical is it free of? What and who is it certified by?), they’re claimed to be puffery which is legal because it doesn’t necessarily harm anyone rather than declared as false-advertising which is illegal.

3. Hidden trade-offs

Consumers may believe brands when they say that their products are made of “recycled material.” To a certain extent, they are, but only about 10-20% of it is. The rest is made from cut down trees or new plastic.  

4. Irrelevant Claims

Although irrelevant claims don’t cause any harm, they prevent you from finding better brands. For example, if some of the claims mention chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — a chemical that has dangerous effects on the ozone layer, it makes no difference because the chemical has been banned for over 30 years which means that no products can contain it anyway. 

5. Lesser Than Two Evils

Some environmental claims such as “organic” or “green” are placed on products that already have questionable environmental factors. An example of this is “organic” cigarettes. Any type of cigarette is harmful: it hurts your personal health, it contributes to deforestation, and it pollutes our ecosystem.

WHERE CAN WE FIND IT?

Greenwashing marketing exists everywhere, even for the most well-known companies. 

Shampoo companies like Herbal Essence advertise their bottles as “made from recycled material” when, in fact, only 25% of the bottle is made from recycled plastic. The rest is made from new plastic that takes up an unnecessary amount of energy and releases toxins that contribute to global warming during production. The bottles are also colored with dyes, so it lowers the probability of it getting recycled. 

Likewise, the brand Love Beauty and Planet markets itself as vegan; however, the brand is actually owned by the company Unilever that tests on animals and is one of the largest contributors of plastic waste. Unilever is a British-Dutch transnational consumer goods company that owns other top brands such as Dove, Lipton, and Breyers. Despite their attempts to promote gender equality and saving the environment through their advertisements, it’s all for marketing. In 2001, Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of Unilever, dumped toxic mercury waste in Kodaikanal, India. As a result, 45 workers and 18 children died in a thermometer plant from mercury exposure. The company doesn’t care about people, it only cares about the profit they make.

To say that Love Beauty and Planet is vegan and cruelty-free would be a vague statement. Perhaps their product has not been tested on animals, but there is no clarification as to whether or not their ingredients are cruelty-free. The company does not disclose any further information about their animal testing policies and considering that their parent company is unethical, it’s difficult to confirm that it promises what it claims.

Fast fashion companies like H&M use green marketing to promote to consumers that they are ethical. It has a separate line within the company that promotes sustainability, but as an entire brand itself, H&M remains as an unethical company that supports child labor and poor working conditions. It also has a recycling program, but there’s no information on where the clothes end up. Most likely, it will end up in landfills. Despite their efforts, their business model needs work, and they cannot rely on a separate line to make their entire company look good.

Other companies like Nestlé claim that they have made efforts to reduce plastic waste when they’re the leading company that contributes to the most plastic waste in the ocean and landfills. They made the claim that they reduced their plastic waste by making their bottle cap size or bottle shape smaller when in reality, that means nothing. Additionally, they pulled water from federal land in California, despite it suffering a drought, which forced the Californians to buy their water in plastic bottles—another issue in itself. The company’s motivation is greed, and they use green marketing tools to promote that they care about our planet when they don’t

Sometimes, environmentally friendly products aren’t as friendly as many people think. When purchasing sustainable items off of Amazon or in stores, customers risk getting them in plastic packaging when the product itself is made to reduce waste. Although Amazon can be the only best option price and accessibility wise, the company and its suppliers contribute to greenwashing by advertising a product as 100% earth-friendly when it has excessive packaging. 

HOW TO IDENTIFY THE BETTER PRODUCT

When trying to identify whether or not a company is greenwashing its product or brand, transparency matters. If the brand cannot prove their claims, they aren’t being transparent. If it isn’t certified by a reliable organization (FDA, EPA), they aren’t being transparent. If the brand can’t give you more information on their website or in a response to an email their customer has sent, they aren’t being transparent. If companies are not transparent with their consumers, they are making misleading claims.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

The best way to fight greenwashing is to no longer support those companies. Instead of supporting fast fashion companies, buy clothes second-hand or support sustainable brands such as Everlane, Reformation, or Girlfriend, just to name a few. Instead of supporting unethical soap brands like Love Beauty and Planet and Herbal Essence, support brands like Dr. Bronners or buy package free soap bars that are handmade and made locally. Take the time to read labels and ask questions. Consumers deserve to know information about the products they’re paying for. Put your money where your mouth is. If a company doesn’t align with your values, why support it?

It may be difficult to ditch every product that is unsustainable when the prices may be more convenient for you or the product works better than no other; however, signing petitions, writing emails, and showing that you care about these policies can help force companies to do better. Companies care about what’s in demand because that’s how they make profit.

Unfortunately, companies like to take advantage of their customers. But if consumers educate themselves on how the system works, they can be a part of the solution. Being sustainable doesn’t stop at recycling or purchasing eco-friendly friendly products, it only starts from there.

MORE INFO ON KODAIKANAL MERCURY POISONING:

http://kodaimercury.org/