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The Green Sheen: Three Ways to Spot Greenwashing

The increasing threats to the environment have gotten consumers and companies to be conscious of their environmental impacts. Private organizations are taking extra steps towards corporate responsibility to demonstrate how they’re working towards sustainability. In turn, more customers are making eco-friendly purchases to lessen the environmental issues associated with product manufacturing.

As consumers become more environmentally conscious, brands capitalize on the increasing demand by producing eco-friendly products and services. Others are working with sustainability experts to make their operations sustainable, efficient, and cost-saving. This allowed companies to improve their social responsibility practices and reach environmental standards set by governments and regulatory bodies.

Switching to an eco-friendly way of doing business presents huge opportunities to grow a company. Sadly, other brands are latching on the sustainability trend by pretending to be “eco-conscious.” Making misleading claims about being an eco-friendly brand and exploiting green ethics is known as greenwashing. To know more about this deceptive marketing spin, we’ll list down the signs on how to spot greenwashing.

Hidden trade-offs

Hidden trade-offs are the most popular form of greenwashing, with over 57% green marketing claims. This happens when companies label their product or service as sustainable by using certain attributes (e.g., recycled packaging) while leaving out other characteristics (e.g., amount of energy and carbon emissions produced).

When a brand claims their products came from recycled materials, consumers should ask themselves how brands process, produce, and dispose of their materials. This practice is common in nutritional claims in the food industry. Some food products label themselves as “low fat” to distract consumers’ attention from the added amounts of sugar. These foods are no better than other full-fat versions.

When it comes to environmental claims, a hidden trade-off happens when a company depends on one environmental claim, such as “recycled content.” What consumers are unaware of is that the company is actually ignoring other facets of sustainability.

For example, a paper product has a recycling symbol, which means it contains recycled content. Upon careful examination, the product only contains a small percentage of recycled material, while the rest came from unsustainable virgin pulp. But not all 100% recycled papers are eco-friendly. Some brands heavily bleach their recycled papers to have a bright and clear appearance. In this case, this method is considered unsustainable as they’re using more chemicals and water that cause more pollution.

man reading bottle label

Green trapping

The green visual trap is the use of idyllic imagery (e.g., trees, flowers, and nature) to disguise as an eco-friendly brand. Greenwashed brands use a particular aesthetic for their packaging to mislead a customer’s consciousness but in no way supporting sustainability claims.

One example is a shampoo bottle filled with eco-friendly themes (e.g., bamboo pictures) and an “all-natural” label that looks sustainable on the outside. If you inspect the ingredient list, you will find a long list of unknown chemical substances that only a medical professional can understand.

Brands mislead customers by using earthy tones to subconsciously create an image that their product has no chemical contamination. Some even display images of mountains, animals, and tropical forests to subliminally imply their products are helping the environment and wildlife. Others are using images of farms or wheat to project a pastoral charm and divert customers’ attention to natural food ingredients instead of unrecognizable chemicals.

False labeling is another form of green trapping and is the primary element of greenwashing. It uses fake certifications and eco-responsible logos from nonexistent third parties and includes them as the product label. Another technique is “fibbing,” an advertising spin that uses flat-out fake claims.

Your best defense on this marketing tactic is to research and read the ingredients list before falling into their eco-friendly imagery.

Vague buzzwords

Visit the grocery store, and you’ll find dozens of product packaging labeled with environmental claims, such as “eco-friendly,” “all-natural,” and “chemical-free.” Even chemical cleaning supplies and processed foods are outright using these claims on their branding.

These vague buzzwords are all meaningless, unsubstantiated claims. Claiming to be an “eco-friendly” product doesn’t represent a brand’s environmental impact. These vague buzzwords aren’t exactly sustainable. For example, product components such as arsenic and mercury are naturally made but still deadly to human beings.

Sadly, there are no strict rules for what qualifies to be “green” or “natural.” In this case, it is the customer’s responsibility to know the actual practices of such brands.

In the end, it’s up to the customer’s own due diligence to ensure the brand is eco-friendly and sustainable as they claim. If you end up buying a greenwashed product, use that experience as a learning opportunity. For extra measure, be sure to remember the signs above to stop patronizing brands that get away from their deceptive marketing spins.

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