What is Greenwashing and how to spot it

Short answer – It is lying and capitalising on your climate crisis concerns.

Long answer – Greenwashing is the business practice of putting more resources into marketing the products as “green”, “eco-friendly”, “sustainable” and “good for the planet” without actually implementing eco-friendly processes across various aspects of the business. Companies use eco-imagery and eco-lingo to add a veneer of sustainability to their not-so-sustainable products. People aspiring to lead a more earth-friendly life is nothing but a lucrative market and greenwashing serves as the perfect method to tap into this desire and make profits.

Greenwashing is the practice of convincing us that their products/businesses help the environment, instead of implementing processes that actually help the environment.

@sustainablyslow

Greenwashing has been on the rise over the past few years as consumers become increasingly concerned with very real climate crisis problems. As more and more of us begin to rethink our lifestyle choices and our impact, it is crucial to understand that sustainability is a complex concept involving many subsets.

Oversimplified explanation of sustainability

Living an eco-conscious life requires thorough research. In 2019, NYU Stern’s Center for Sustainable Business found that between 2013 and 2018, 50 per cent of the sales growth in consumer packaged goods came from products marketed as ‘sustainable‘.

Typical Greenwashing Template

How to identify Greenwashing

  1. Watch out for vague eco-lingo used in marketing:
What they claimWhat we should all think and ask
Eco-friendlyIn what way?
Non-toxicDoes the ingredient list back this claim?
NaturalHow do you define it?
PureIn what sense?
SustainableHow exactly?
BiodegradableSure, but under what conditions and in how long?
Save the Earth!Yes, your one product is a complete revolution about to end the entire planet’s misery!

These vague promises don’t point to any specific information and in essence, don’t mean anything unless supported with information to back it up. A company can put these words anywhere, regardless of their business practices

2. Watch out for certifications

Certified businesses have to go through a series of processes and investments to earn a certification marker, to prove they really are for the planet, profit, and people, not just the bottom line. Look beyond general terms and check for gold standard Fair Trade and organic certifications, which are made by independent bodies.

Some organisations may not have a certification and may be working towards it. Always research and cross-check. If the product has the word ‘organic’ emblazoned all across, check the ingredient list. If a vast majority of its ingredients on the back aren’t starred as organic, that’s greenwashing.

3. Watch out for non-sensical claims

Coca Cola, the biggest producer of plastic bottles, says they can’t stop making plastic bottles because consumers want them. Starbucks claimed that it will eliminate plastic straws globally by 2020, and they did by replacing plastic straws with sippy-cup style lids. These new lids are much thicker than straws which means plastic consumption increased by .32 – .88 grams per drink by going strawless.

4. Watch out for transparency or lack there of

While implementing sustainable processes across all business functions may not always be possible for all businesses. But transparency is what you’re looking for. If the company is making an environmentally-friendly claim, a quick Google search should reveal at least some activities to back up the promise. The more detail a business shares about what ingredients it uses, where they came from, who made their products, how are they compensated, and where their waste goes, the better. 

5. Look for consistency in the details

Truly ethical businesses with environmental concerns at their core have sustainable practices built into their business model. They focus on the sourcing, production, distribution, waste management and after-life of their products. Greenwashing companies often introduce one “eco” version while everything else is business as usual, and/or make faux-sustainable claims by labelling bottles made of non-recyclable plastic – ‘good for earth’.

It’s important to examine the kind of packaging being used to sell the products. The words ‘recyclable’, ‘degradable’ and ‘compostable’ are not the same. And there’s not much point in buying a bamboo toothbrush that comes packaged in 4 layers of plastic or an eco-conscious T-shirt from a popular fast fashion brand that still exploits workers in a third world country you have not heard of.

You can’t buy your way to a sustainable life. Mindless consumption and modern capitalism is half the problem.

@sustainablyslow

No product is perfectly green, and everything has a carbon footprint. Having said that, sustainable living is not just about buying eco-friendly products. It’s the unshakeable commitment to be mindful of the impact of our actions, make informed decisions and better choices. It is our responsibility to do our research, ask questions and educate ourselves before we make a purchase.


By recycling bottles into tees, your favourite juice brand is doing more harm than good

Clothing made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, ocean plastic, and other “upcycled” plastic sources has been getting a lot of encouragement and support recently. Many of us fall prey to the trap of thinking we’re making a responsible choice by supporting these businesses. While in reality, clothing made of plastics (of any kind) render more harm to the environment and our planet than good.

To transform into clothing, plastic is broken down into pellets, heated into a viscous plastic-y liquid and spun into fibre. The same fibre we’ve all known for years to be wrecking havoc to our planet – polyester. Part of the slow-fashion revolution is based on the principle – Clothes made of polyester (or any other synthetic fibre) are not earth friendly.

Turning plastic into clothing doesn’t take away the plastic from our ecosystem. It simply breaks it down into untraceable bits.

@sustainablyslow

When clothes made of synthetic fibres are washed, they shed microfibres that break down into smaller and smaller plastics that are infinitely harder to filter and collect. Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist at the University of New South Wales and world-leading expert on microfibres, published a paper in Environmental Science & Technology stating that a single synthetic garment can produce more than 1,900 fibres per wash.

These microfibres are one of the largest threats to ocean health. They enter not only our waterways but also get consumed by fish and marine life, in turn entering our food chain. Eventually humans end up consuming these micro plastics. A study by University of New Castle and the World Wildlife fund reports we eat an average of 5 grams of microplastics per week.

That’s a little over 250 grams a year.

I am always in support of the idea of lowering our impact and of companies and people working towards it. Maybe the companies making and marketing plastic clothing products do not understand the complexities of Systems Science.

But oftentimes, they are intentionally taking advantage of a trend. 

The use of non-reactive packaging such as glass and plastic to preserve the nutritional value is understandable. They claim plastic was chosen over glass to reduce the carbon footprint from a higher energy consumption during transportation. But no information is presented comparing this fuel energy consumption to that of plastic bottles. Nor has it been compared to the energy spent in manufacturing t-shirts.

When PET bottles can be recycled and turned into new bottles at least ten times, why is there no mention of the same on their website?

Let’s assume the cost to recycle the bottles is excessively high. Recycling them into products is the only sensible option. But why wearables like t-shirts? Why not accessories like bags, shoes or bracelets that don’t get washed after each use? Why not pen holders and storage baskets that, perhaps, require no washing at all?

Clothing made from “upcycled” plastic, despite good intentions, is not at all a sustainable solution.

@sustainablyslow

It is completely okay to manufacture merchandise. Brands have been doing it for decades. What’s not okay is to present profit-seeking merchandising efforts as sustainable or environmental pursuits.

We ought not to patronise such stunts with our money.

I urge you all to please always research companies and products that claim to be “sustainable”. Greenwashing and painting a sustainable picture online/on social media through messaging is not only dangerously misleading but also practically free in the absence of appropriate policies.

We must choose to support companies that embrace environmental practices through design, supply chain infrastructure, and at the end-of-life stage of their products.