GREENWASHING: What it is and how to spot it

Updated: Dec 6, 2021


What is greenwashing?


Eco-friendly alternatives are becoming more and more appealing to consumers, which puts pressure on manufacturers to make their products more sustainable. Encouraging retailers to consider the environment is great, but when the main motivation is simply wanting to keep up with competitors, how eco-friendly do the products really end up being?


Hannah Blumhardt from The Rubbish Trip puts it bluntly: “If the product allows you to behave in the exact same way that we always have, but suddenly it's eco, its probably too good to be true”.


The practice of promoting your brand as environmentally conscious, while not actually having sustainable values, is called greenwashing. This is a common marketing tactic - so much so that a 2010 survey found that over 95% of ‘green’ products contained one or more forms of greenwashing!


Separating the good from the bad can be extremely tricky, which is why we’ve put together a quick guide to help you distinguish the green from the greenwash.



What does it commonly look like?


Exaggeration

  • Overemphasising how eco-friendly the product is is much more common than completely making it up.

  • Usually done through the vague use of environmental buzzwords, such as cleaning products that claim to be ‘all natural’ or ‘contains organic ingredients’ - organic and natural are words that technically cover a broad range of harmful chemicals, meaning that just because something is natural, does not mean it is necessarily good for you or the environment.

  • “Even words that we in the zero waste community use like zero waste, like circular economy, regenerative… a lot of these terms are being co-opted by companies to mean something different or to apply to their product” - Liam Prince

  • Use of terminology like ‘recyclable’ , ’biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’, which automatically gives you that feel-good factor, but it is not always that straightforward - for example takeaway coffee cups are often advertised as compostable, but because of the materials used they must be disposed of in a commercial facility, of which NZ only has 12. Additionally, single-use plastic made from plant materials are not automatically compostable, thus not as great for the environment and as easy to dispose of as we are lead to believe.



Misleading packaging

  • Manufacturers often like to design their products with packaging that one would typically associate with environmentalism, such as green colours and images of nature and trees.

  • This advertising tactic is contradictory to genuine eco-friendly products, which are usually made with packaging containing neutral shades which do not require the use of toxic bleach or dyes.

Fake certification

  • Another common form of greenwashing is the use of phrases such as ‘certified green’ or displaying a green tick, which gives the impression that it has been endorsed by a third party, but is actually just a marketing ploy.

  • Use of the green recycle triangle - this image actually belongs to the public domain, meaning that anyone


can use the symbol without their product being in any way recyclable. Additionally, not all items with a recycling number can be put in your home recycling bin (for more info on what can and can’t be recycled in Wellington, check out our post on recycling contamination).

  • When it comes to compostable items, “For things like compostable packaging we don’t have a certification system in New Zealand” - Hannah Blumhardt - meaning that companies can often claim to be certified compostable without being held to account.

Lack of information

  • greenwashed products will contain a lot of environmental claims and jargon, but no actual explanation about the company’s commitment to sustainability, how you can effectively recycle or compost the item, or no detailed list of ingredients + where they are sourced from.

  • Products may claim to be 90% biodegradable, which sounds great, but raises questions like “so what does that mean and what about the other ten percent? What am I supposed to do with this?” - Hannah Blumhardt

  • This form of greenwashing is common in the clothing industry, where large fashion retailers will advertise their latest range as ‘sustainable’, while offering little to no transparency of their supply chain or production systems.


All of this is very concerning, and yet is just the tip of the greenwashing iceberg! For more in-depth information about these issues, check out:

  • Page 10 of the Terrachoice report to understand the most common ‘7 sins of greenwashing’

  • Check out the government report on biodegradable and compostable plastics, available here

  • The Sustainability Trust's blog post on recycling contamination can be found here






This article was originally written by Claire Makepeace for the Sustainability Trust in 2020. Full copyright belongs to them.

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