Photo by Bart Jaillet on Unsplash

What is Greenwashing?

Photo by Bart Jaillet on Unsplash
Photo by Bart Jaillet on Unsplash

Greenwashing, by definition, is a PR tactic that spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ than actually implementing business practices that are sustainable and ethical. While typically used to describe environmental issues, it has evolved to include social injustices because these areas are deeply intertwined. Sometimes it’s easy to spot—such as the oxymoron of clean coal—and sometimes, it’s hidden behind vague terms like “made from natural ingredients.” Greenwashing can range from a simple name change like Nestlé Pure Life to Exxon’s Million Dollar Ad Campaign.

Nowadays, greenwashing most commonly takes the form of Random Acts of Greenness—in other words, a couple of tweaks to a product or practice that garner PR points but do nothing to enact systemic change. Eco-conscious PR points go farther with millennials, who are willing to pay more for sustainable products than older generations. Random Acts of Greenness are safe for businesses because they appear to step in the right direction, don’t disrupt profit margins, and cash in on folks who want to do good. In a world responding to the climate crisis, the future of businesses hinges on their sustainability policies—whether those policies are environmentally-sound is another situation altogether.

So how can we make a conscious purchasing decision? It’s all about doing the research and seeking transparency.

Spot It.

Generally, what makes something greenwashed boils down to 5 basic signs. Let’s look at it in the context of denim jeans:

  1. No Proof: making claims like “jeans dyed naturally” without defining or backing up with a third-party certification.
  2. Vagueness: similar to #1, what does “dyed naturally” even mean?
  3. Hidden Trade-Off: the jeans claim to be dyed naturally, but the process wastes thousands of gallons of water.
  4. Lesser of Two Evils: naturally dyed jeans are better than synthetically dyed jeans…but doesn’t change the bigger problem of dye runoff polluting waterways.
  5. Outright Dishonesty: turns out the “dyed naturally” claim is a lie since there are carcinogens in the supply chain.

Yikes. One of the signs I frequently encounter in the wild (of my grocery aisles) is No Proof. Did you know that terms like “all-natural” mean absolutely nothing? The FDA, which regulates about 75 percent of the nation’s food supply, does not define this term, leaving it up to the discretion of companies that use it. Therefore, a “natural” product could include artificial preservatives or a synthetic chemical blend.

Yet, I believe the most dangerous of these signs is the hidden trade-off. By hiding supply chain sins behind the corporate curtain, companies can get away with human rights abuses, releasing all kinds of pollutants, and degrading the environment. Business as usual can continue as long as customers are ignorant of what is actually happening.

Check It.

The beautiful thing about our consumer-centric market is that we have power over these companies—because if we knew that a chocolate brand used child labor, we’d stop buying it. Conscious consumerism believes businesses have a responsibility to come clean about their practices. If their process is ethical, there’s nothing to hide. One such way to ensure socially and environmentally-sound practices is to check for a third-party certification.

Certifications are like fact-checkers—they are independent bodies that make sure a business is doing what it claims. There are plenty to choose from, ranging from B-Corp, the Leaping Bunny, USDA Certified Organic, and a plethora of fair trade certifiers. Many of these hold high standards of sustainability and social justice. For buyers, a trusted third-party seal makes it much easier to determine the green and the greenwashed. (Unfortunately, even certifiers are can be greenwashed–use the Eco Labels Index to find out if that seal is real or not.)

Keep in mind that not all businesses have the funds to hire a certifier. Luckily, small businesses are easier to contact than major operations, so ask them about their sustainability plan and check for actionable goals. An actionable goal is something that can be measured, such as “100 percent organic bamboo by 2020.” Extra points for a business that publishes its plan on its website. But if they won’t or don’t answer you… well, that’s pretty telling in itself.

Here is a list of resources to check greenwashing:

  • goodonyou.eco for clothing brands. Checks for transparency, a living wage, animal treatment, other certifiers, and much more. The results will surprise you.
  • Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Checks cosmetics and personal care products for ingredient safety, animal welfare, and health warnings. This one is a little harder to understand at first glance, so I recommend scanning their user guide first.
  • ABC’s of Food Labels by Green America. This one is a little different in that it ranks food label certifications—because false food labels are perhaps the most rampant among the greenwashed offenders. Some of the labels also have overlap with clothing, since cotton and bamboo are agricultural products.
  • This guide by Fair Trade Winds. Like food, fair trade has a lot of confusing labels. This article seeks to clarify that. I would like to point out the criticisms of Fairtrade USA, however; after deciding to certify plantations, which are historically subject to worker abuses, Fairtrade USA was accused of being greenwashed with fair trade certifications. It’s up to you to decide if those criticisms are valid.
  • I often use several of these to cross-check brands, too. For example, Madewell has some Fairtrade USA certified clothing. Given what I know about the Fairtrade USA certifying plantations, coupled with its “Not Good Enough” rating on goodonyou.eco, I hesitate on purchasing. In comparison, Tom’s of Maine deodorant is B-Corp certified (a real label when cross-checked on Eco Labels Index) and is rated highly on the Skin Deep database.

Stop It.

Is it possible to avoid greenwashed products altogether? For most of us, no–but don’t feel guilty. It’s not our fault, but the fault of an economy that prioritizes profits over the wellbeing of people and the planet—yet that same economy gives us power. Greenwashing, while a deceitful business practice, has created a wave of savvy, conscious consumers and a generation of entrepreneurs that address the triple bottom line (re: business model that addresses profit, social, and environmental goals). 

As buyers, we can stop greenwashing by supporting brands that do serious work with our dollars. This raises the standard across industries and makes it easier for all businesses to integrate social and environmental goals as responsible manufacturers grow in demand. It also raises alarms that other businesses must reimagine their practices to stay relevant. 

The second action of combating greenwashing is calling out bad actors. Did you discover that your favorite clothing brand isn’t doing enough? Don’t let that get you down—demand a sustainability plan. This is how we transform business as usual. However, if their goals are not actionable or they’re refusing to release sustainability progress reports— it’s up to you to either demand accountability or take your dollars elsewhere. Supporting companies that refuse to do their due diligence is propping up social injustices. 

As conscious consumers, we can spot greenwashing and stop it from fooling others. We can demand social and environmental responsibility from business. We have the power to vote with our dollars for a better economy. It’s time we use it.


NOTE: THIS IS AN EDUCATED OPINION PIECE, NOT AN OBJECTIVE RESOURCE. As with all resources on Outdoor Advocacy Project, there is always room to continue the conversation, add a new perspective, bolster the resources, and share new findings. Got something you want to add, challenge or amplify? Let us know in the comments, or e-mail team@outdooradvocacy.com to write your own ed-op on this topic.

Mary Meade
Mary Meade

Mary Meade is an outdoor enthusiast, planet advocate, and writer. She breaks down the big ideas of sustainability to promote conscious consumerism and environmental justice.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.