What is greenwashing anyway? Are companies lying to us?

Let’s dive into Greenwashing.

Greenwashing is the portrayal of false impressions or providing misleading information about a company and/or their products. It is seemingly eco-friendly marketing that used to deceive customers into thinking the brand, product, or service is actually sustainable. Simply put, it is making people believe that your company is doing more to protect the earth than it actually is.

Why is this a problem? This is problematic because customers new to the zero waste/sustainability movement might not know how to differentiate between greenwashing and truly sustainable brands. That’s where I come in. Through this post, I want to show you greenwashing examples, how to tell greenwashing for yourselves, and types of greenwashing.

This is also an issue because 2/3 of people are willing to pay more for eco-friendliness and half of people take sustainability into consideration when buying a product. With more and more greenwashing popping up, this is a huge issue. This means that people will likely buy seemingly green products from Tide, Coca Cola, Dawn, and more instead of supporting actual sustainable companies, products, and practices. By doing this, these wasteful companies stay in business by ultimately tricking their consumers into thinking they are green.

Some examples of greenwashing I have seen firsthand:

I talked about these on Instagram recently, but the first one is Tide’s new line of eco detergent. First off, Tide is owned by P&G, a notoriously wasteful company I’d like to dig into at another time. I’m not saying that big corporations can’t be green, but they most likely are not. Their normal line is typically made of potentially harmful chemicals and dyes and comes in plastic. This eco-formula isn’t much better. What makes this eco-friendly? Well, nothing, but they claim it is eco-friendly since it’s made without dyes, with renewable energy, and in a recyclable bottle. Great, this is a good step, but now we need to ask why they aren’t going this with all their products. Why not make their entire line “green?”

The second example is some dish scrubbers. I noticed this green packaging and brown sponge next to it’s brightly colored brothers. This sponge is eco-friendly, the label screams, but how so? They claim it’s because 50% of the sponge is made of natural fibers and the cardboard box is made from recycled materials. That doesn’t automatically claim something to be eco-friendly.

Also, Niagara water. I found a bottle of theirs as litter and noticed their green wording AND their note to consumers saying “this bottle is recyclable.” This just puts blame and responsibility on the consumer. Sure, it’s great to recycle plastic, but what is Niagara actually doing to better the planet...nothing.

Other things include meat and oil companies encouraging people to ride bikes and turn off lights when they don’t do anything themselves.

The important questions I asked myself upon seeing these products is:

  • What makes them eco-friendly/what do they say makes this product eco-friendly?

  • Who makes it and are they known to be wasteful or not?

  • Are all of their products like this or is this a special product/line/campaign?

Let’s talk about some types of greenwashing and greenwashing keywords used. You will often see things like:

  • Made of recycled material

  • Natural

  • Green

  • Eco-friendly

  • Low impact

  • Recyclable

  • Biodegradable

But, you might be thinking, won’t actually sustainable brands and companies use these words? Perhaps. One big key between greenwashing and non-greenwashing is the bluntness of it. Greenwashing will come off as “too obvious.” Like Tide’s “eco” detergent sitting among bottles and bottles of their bright orange product. Or purposely using green or neutral fonts and packaging. Products that are truly sustainable usually don’t do this. They might use trending words here and there, but for the most part, they leave it up to the consumer to make the call.

My biggest tip: research the company, look at ingredients, look at materials, and avoid big companies when possible.

Just because something has natural ingredients, is recyclable, is made of recycled materials does not make it sustainable. The end of that product's life (recycling) and what the product is made of means very little.

It is important to ask:

  • How was this product made?

  • How were these natural materials sourced?

  • Was this made ethically as well?

  • Is this brand notoriously wasteful?

  • And other things along those lines.

Things to look out for when trying to spot greenwashing:

  • Generally wasteful companies conducting green campaigns, green ads, and so forth

  • Claims that a product is recyclable. This is NOT eco-friendly. Is it great that it is recyclable as opposed to not being, but this is just taking the blame off the company. Not to mention the incredibly low recycling rate across the US for all materials, recycling is a last case scenario, not an act of being eco-friendly

  • Hidden trade offs like starbucks using their plastic lids meant to reduce the amount of straws used, but I still see people using straws anyway

  • No proof in their claims and no certifications. Look for “B corporation” or “1% for the planet” for certifiably green companies

  • General vagueness or fluffy words like I mentioned earlier in the products I’ve seen stating it’s “recyclable” and “made from natural materials”

  • Lesser of two evils. This can be applied to the Starbucks example too

  • Straight up lying or using irrelevant data

  • BIOPLASTICS! Yes, bioplastics are great, but you HAVE TO compost them or take them to an industrial compost facility. They CANNOT be recycled and they take just as long as regular plastic to break down. Let me know if you’re interested in a further deepdive on bioplastics!

  • Images like the recycling sign, mountains, trees, light bulbs, and other natural looking images to make the consumer think it’s greener

  • Third party companies. You’ll see this a lot with big brands like Coca Cola making “natural” and “healthy” products that may even come in glass. You can’t tell it’s from Coca Cola, but if you look hard on the back , there it is

Not all greenwashing is malicious. It can be accidental, but either way, I highly encourage you to look into the companies and products you are supporting. The biggest one for me is green products or campaigns from not-normally-eco companies. Also, look for transparent companies. Big companies like Patagonia are truly trying to be more sustainable and are honest about it. They acknowledge they aren’t perfect and don’t try to trick customers into buying their products.

Overall, greenwashing is bad and it’s tricky to spot, but with practice, you can do it too. My rule of thumb for myself is first, use what I have. If I need something I don’t have, look second hand. If I must buy something brand new, I search for smaller brands with certifications.

Thank you so much for reading along, I hope this inspired you and educated you in some way. I hope you subscribe to follow along on this greenwashing journey as I explore it further within the next few months and even years!

As always, remember that the small changes you make have a big impact in the long run :)

- Emma

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Hey there! Thanks for stopping by! 

My name is Emma. I am a 20-year-old new to this sustainable lifestyle. I am here to give you my tips as I learn them and help beginners begin their sustainable life...


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