Fifty shades of greenwashing (and how to avoid it)

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals include in SDG 12 the objective of “ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns”. In the last decade, environmental awareness has increased rapidly and consumers have started to become more conscious of their impact on the planet. People have begun to change their consumption pattern and shop more consciously, and the growing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products has led to an exponential increase in green advertising. Many companies followed this trend: some of them have made real improvements in terms of sustainability; others have simply decided to ride the wave keeping the same modus operandi, adopting greenwashing techniques.

The types of greenwashing

Greenwashing is a broad term, but it can be generally defined as “a discrepancy between organizations’ green claims and their actual environmental performance”.

The practice of greenwashing can be declined in many forms, which are classified in different ways. The “claim greenwashing” is probably the most studied and widespread form. It refers to textual arguments that explicitly or implicitly refer to the ecological benefits of a product or service to create misleading environmental claims. It was first introduced by Kangun, Carlson and Grove in 1991, and the term includes the practices of:

  • lying: using false claims, for instance lying about having a particular certification;
  • lying by omission: for example, when some “green” attributes of a product are advertised, while other negative aspects are not mentioned;
  • lying through lack of clarity: the use of vague or ambiguous terms, such as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly”, which have no legal definition and which are meaningless without further information.

Executional greenwashing”, on the other hand, does not involve the use of text, but it refers to nature-evoking elements in ads or product packaging: some examples are the use of green colour, images of natural landscapes, of animals or of renewable energy sources.

The H&M Conscious Choice Collection has been heavily criticized (and even sued) for alleged greenwashing. Photo by: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for H&M.

The European Commission proposal

Greenwashing could harm the evolution towards sustainable consumption by discouraging sincere companies’ efforts to become more responsible and by guiding conscious consumers towards non-optimal choices.  On the contrary, raising consumers awareness about this topic can create a bottom-up pressure on advertisers to refrain from using greenwashing. For these reasons, greenwashing should be strongly discouraged, but the law is still far from being able to actively address the issue.

In order to put a stop to the chaos of greenwashing, in March 2022 the European Commission proposed a “ban on greenwashing. The legislative proposal, which should amend the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD), aims to sanction a number of behaviours. Some of the practices that might be inserted into the blacklist include: “making generic, vague environmental claims where the excellent environmental performance of the product or trader cannot be demonstrated” (examples of vague claims are ‘environmentally friendly’, ‘eco’ or ‘green’); “displaying a voluntary sustainability label which was not based on a third-party verification scheme or established by public authorities”; “making an environmental claim about the entire product, when it really concerns only a certain aspect of the product”.

One country that has already acted is the United Kingdom. In September 2021 the UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the Green Claims Code, a guide for companies making environmental claims. The Code contains six principles, which state that:

  • Claims must be truthful and accurate
  • Claims must be clear and unambiguous
  • Claims must not omit or hide important information
  • Comparisons must be fair and meaningful
  • Claims must be substantiated
  • In making the claim you must consider the full life cycle of the product or service

Citizens (but also public bodies like the CMA) are allowed to take legal action against firms that do not comply with the Code.

Tips for the conscious consumer: how to avoid greenwashing

While we will have to wait a while before we have an anti-greenwashing legislation in Europe, that doesn’t mean consumers cannot take action on their own. Here we collected some tips that consumers can follow:

  1. Look for third-party certifications. The website Ecolabel Index evaluates the different labels and certifications used and the credentials that each product must meet in order to receive the seal of approval.
  2. Do not automatically associate the green colour or nature-evoking elements to harmless products for the environment.
  3. Search for specific information. Generic claims such as “all-natural” or “organic”, or statistical/percentage information such as “made with 50% more recycled material” must be specified and proven credible on the label or on the company website.
  4. Check the brand, not just the products. Some brands may produce a sustainable line, while having an overall negative business behaviour.
  5. Beware of hidden trade-offs. Some products might be “sustainable” in parts, but not as a whole (for example, “our new detergent has a recyclable cap”, while not mentioning the impact of the rest of the packaging). Similarly, some companies might be “sustainable” from an environmental point of view, but not in other aspects (e.g., a firm that uses child labour or does not pay fair wages is not socially sustainable).
  6. Use the internet. People are becoming aware of the greenwashing issue and some websites have tried to come to the aid of consumers. Good On You, for example, is a website that evaluates fashion brands based on their business impact on the planet, workers and animals, allowing consumers to see beyond potentially misleading green advertising.

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