What is greenwashing, and how to avoid being a victim?

LMFnetwork
6 min readSep 23, 2022

What is greenwashing, and why must we be aware of this practice?

Let’s start by explaining a straightforward concept of the economy that is the basis of greenwashing.

Companies, especially B2C, offer goods and services to CONSUMERS.

It is a very basic concept. Indeed, generally speaking, companies produce goods or services based on consumer demand.

Let’s take an absurd example.

If it rained coca-cola from the sky from tomorrow, most likely no one would buy it anymore, as it is available for free to everyone. If no one asks for Coca-Cola anymore, there are no various options for the company. Indeed the first step would be to drastically lower the price of coca-cola, hoping that people will continue to buy it because it is already bottled and therefore easy to drink.

But if lower the price is not enough, and we all stop buying that drink, even if it’s sold for a penny, there won’t be much to do for the company. Either they produce another alternative product quickly, or they have to close to bankruptcy.

Once we understand that companies need consumers to make profits, it is more evident to understand why and how companies do greenwashing.

Before continuing, let’s define now the greenwashing:

Greenwashing is a deceptive marketing strategy.

When a company or organization wants to appear more environmentally friendly or ecological (more natural, healthier, free of chemicals, recyclable, less wasteful of natural resources, etc.) when in practice, its activities pollute the environment.

Why do companies want to give misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound?

The reason is simple and connected with the introductory “economic lesson” explained earlier. As more and more young people and citizens are taking care of the climate change issue, companies find themselves forced to adapt by offering more sustainable goods and services every day. Consumer demand is shifting towards sustainability.

If companies do not adapt, fewer and fewer people will buy their products, bringing the company lower profits and more and more losses.

Since not all companies sustainably produce their products or services to keep selling, they started lying or showcasing a small number of sustainable practices to make profits.

To understand how not to be fooled by companies that lie (in whole or part) to us consumers, now we will see the five aspects to consider to understand if the company is greenwashing or not.

1. ENVIRONMENTAL IMAGES

Using images of leaves, animals, green packaging, etc., are all ways of classic greenwashing.

Companies use a visual semiotic approach to influence customers’ choices and make them think that their products are more natural and sustainable. If you notice images in nature, green, with leaves, etc., look at an advertisement, do not assume that the product is sustainable!

Why is Coca-Cola not sustainable? Mainly because the Coca-Cola Company (and PepsiCo) is ranked as the world’s top plastic polluters for the 4th consecutive year according to Break Free From Plastic, whose latest global Brand Audit report also charges the same leading plastic polluters for fueling the climate crisis.

2. MISLEADING LABELS

Certain products are labelled “Certified”, “100% organic”, etc., without supporting information to prove the same. There is a good chance that these labels are self-created and self-declared. Providing no proof to back up a claim is one of the most straightforward greenwashing tactics.

Plus, some material that general customers think is sustainable, in reality, it isn’t. For example, cotton is a plant-based fibre. Therefore, it is more sustainable than synthetic fibres. Although it is a natural fibre, conventional cotton is far from environmentally friendly. It needs a lot of water to grow. Indeed it takes 10,000 litres of water to grow 1kg of cotton, and it is mainly produced in dry and warm regions.

3. HIDDEN TRADE-OFFS

Sustainability doesn’t only count the environment per se. Companies that exploit the workforce by moving parts of production processes (in whole or part) to developing countries by taking advantage of low prices and not caring about the safety conditions of workers or their unfair wages are not sustainable. Genuine companies would provide more information on energy, water conditions, greenhouse gas emissions, employee conditions, etc.

13 May 2013 Rana Plaza collapse.

4. IRRELEVANT CLAIMS

Sometimes, you might come across labels that say they are free of certain chemicals. If the law bans that substance, that is an irrelevant claim advertising them “going green”.

For example, animal testing for cosmetic purposes was — with a few exceptions — banned under EU law in 2009. A ban on all animal testing came into force in 2013.

5. HIDDEN EVIL

Refers to when the company’s claim is valid within the product category, but a more significant risk or environmental impact prevails.

An example is a company selling organic cigarettes.

Now…

If you are wondering how to recognize if an advertisement is sustainable or what could be an example of genuinely sustainable advertising….. take a look at this advertisement from Patagonia.

There are no leaves, mountains or persuasive images. Plus the company is telling you not to buy this jacket!! The first, honest, and most important step to living more sustainably is precisely to abandon the concept of consumerism.

Buy ONLY if and when you need something! The environment and your wallet will be happier.

Last but not least, remember that as a consumer, you have the PURCHASING POWER.

Sure, if one individual decides not to buy water in a plastic bottle, this will not make a difference.

But if millions of individuals stop buying water in plastic bottles, I can assure you that companies will get rid of plastic bottles and be forced to find another way to sell water.

Don’t ever underestimate your purchasing power.

If you want to know more about sustainability and greenwashing, you can see my Masterclass for free on the LMF platform! Using the SKILLS code, you will have two months free.

This blog contribution was made by Eleonora Papini.

Eleonora has 3+ of experience in sustainable development and international cooperation with a background in Economic Development and International Cooperation with Finance.

Her background includes working as a Project Implementation Officer in a European project about urban sustainable development solutions to value the young and female entrepreneurship industry.

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