Social responsibility is the new buzz-word. Food companies, cleaning product companies, and all other corporations are under pressure to sell products that are not harmful to the planet, to animals, or to the individuals who buy those products. The increasing pressure, however, hasn’t necessarily led to companies actually doing anything differently. Instead, it has led to a variety of misleading actions and claims meant to convince consumers that the company is trying to protect the environment. These types of activities are referred to as greenwashing.
See also: Plastic-Free Products for the Home
Greenwashing combines the term whitewashing with ‘green,’ referring to environmental friendliness. The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 article about the hotel industry’s use of placards in rooms urging guests to reuse towels to “save the environment.” Other words for greenwashing are ‘greenspeak’ and ‘greenscamming.’
See also: Turning Landfill Waste Into Food
A good general example is when a company talks about how a certain action is undertaken to cut down on pollution or be more sustainable while ignoring the fact that the core practices of their business are both polluting or unsustainable. This is a bit like eating five pieces of cake and then washing it down with a diet Coke to cut down on sugar or calories.
Before you swoon over the $100,000 dollars a company spends on an environmental product, consider the $1 million the company spent on advertising it!
Paper product manufacturers may make a big deal out of the amount of recycled or post-consumer material used in their products, but they may also be releasing loads of pollution into the air and water when making their products. There is almost always a hidden trade-off. The term recyclable is discussed below, but remember that recyclable and recycled are two different words.
Another tactic is what Greenpeace calls “ad bluster.” This is when companies use advertisements to distract us from problems with the environment.
Merely Following the Law
Yet another tactic is abiding by the law and then praising themselves for it. Companies will do the bare minimum that regulations say must be done to protect against pollution, for instance, and then pat themselves on the back for their social responsibility. A particularly egregious example of this is when products claim to be CFC-free. CFC’s (chlorofluorocarbons) have been banned for thirty years! The claims are completely irrelevant.
These actions and many more are often subtle and hard to spot. Often, though, you can spot greenwashing fairly easily. By just looking at the words companies use. Here are two vague and often meaningless words companies use to greenwash their products. Although these words should mean something, they often do not until actually qualified:
- environmentally friendly.
If you see eco-friendly plastered on a product label, you should look for information as to how the product is eco-friendly. The same thing goes for environmentally friendly. If a company cannot actually explain in concrete and detailed terms how a product is friendly to the environment, then they are probably greenwashing. And, keep in mind that while a product may be friendly to the environment, the methods used to manufacture it may not be.
There are five more concrete terms I’m going to write about, however, that can be just as meaningless, or even down-right misleading. Some of these may surprise my readers.
Before I get started on the list, I would like to state that my aim is to inform you about misleading greenwashing practices, not to instill unreasonable fear in you about any one product or type of product. I certainly am not trying to get you to buy any particular product based on fear-mongering tactics or turn you against any products based on any facts or options stated here.
You Can’t Save the Planet by Buying Things!
You must realize that greenwashing has become almost the rule, and while its use in labeling may be declining, the practice itself is more prevalent than ever, but simply evolving. So, rather than condemning any one company for using it, just know not to let greenwashing alone guide your purchase decisions. The purpose of greenwashing is to get you to buy. If you could remember one rule to guard against falling prey to greenwashing, make it this one: You can’t save the planet by buying things! You may feel better about yourself, after buying some “FAIR TRADE SUSTAINABLE” food product, but this may be all the good the product will do.
Just as harmful as fear-mongering, perhaps, is the effect of greenwashing on consumer trust. It is not my intention, in describing these greenwashing practices, to make you turn your back on the entire notion of “environmentally-friendly.” Yet, we are so awash in these practices we may as well all have been thrown into a giant washing machine with some non-toxic, biodegradable detergent, perhaps with some pretty green flowers on the label in soft, muted colors.
Also be aware that this list is confined to certain greenwashing terms used in labeling and other advertising materials, and is not at all a complete overview of greenwashing activities, which are numerous and diverse. As well, there are certain practices or terms that the public at large considers to be more environmentally friendly and/or sustainable, even though companies may not themselves be making a particular effort to use the terms in a deceptive way. In other words, we greenwash ourselves!
Related to this is the locavore movement and the assumption that locally grown food is more eco-friendly than non-local food. Of course, savvy marketers are aware of public trends and perceptions and they will not hesitate to use them to deceive us. A brown paper package may be simply a brown paper package, but most people tend to think it is more environmentally friendly, more recyclable, etc.
The word sustainable has become such a big buzz-word that I had to list it first. First, what is the definition of sustainable? It depends on who you ask, of course! One definition that many would accept is “able to continue (in regards to a practice) with minimal effects on the environment.” Another might be, “a level of consumption that can be supplied by the environment without overtaxing it.”
Are both these definitions saying the same thing? Clearly not. And even when one or the other definition is agreed upon, it is not so simple to determine if a practice is sustainable. Many claims as to sustainable practices are nothing more than a shell game, moving the problem around, or simply sweeping it under the rug. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) or “carbon sequestering” is one such “sustainable practice.” Many may consider recycling to be another. If you think true sustainability means using less then recycling could be viewed as a “feel-good” effort while we continue to consume more and more, with every consequence this entails, including pollution.
There is probably not a better example of sustainability greenwashing, in my opinion than Terracylce. This company takes packaging materials from companies like Frito Lay, M&M Mars, and Kraft Foods, and turns them into, ahem, single-use products, a practice called upcycling. They also use food waste to make fertilizer and use crushed computers to make garbage cans, among other products. In the case of the aforementioned companies, the companies themselves offset the cost of production but receive a lot of green-will (I just made that term up…a combo of good-will and green) for their efforts, not to mention the advertising. But they go right on making tons of non-recyclable packaging and in no way contribute to their reduction. Here, we go back to the rule I stated above: You can’t save the world by buying things!
How sustainable is it to use packaging material to make products that nobody needs, and which prominently display product labels, thus encouraging more consumption? You be the judge. But before you judge, take a look at the products. The packaging materials are used in the products, but this does not mean that the products are only made with the packaging! Even casual scrutiny will show you that you could take out the packaging material and still be left with plastic, cloth, or a combination of both. There are, on the other hand, other companies that make particular products made entirely with waste material, such as shoes.
In the end, we have to ask whether something that has the end result of promoting consumerism can really reduce waste and thus create sustainability or even greatly contribute to it. While TerraCycle and other companies claiming to help with sustainability may have the best of intentions, it is extremely difficult for them to actually assure the end results of their practices. Something being more or less sustainable is such a complicated question, with so many variables, that can seem to be an unsolvable puzzle. And this is part of the problem. Small effects being compared to other small effects shift the focus and blur the bigger picture and make sustainability seem even more complex than it is.
There are sound arguments for and against all these practices and this underscores just how difficult it is to determine how sustainable any practice is, and just how easy it is to claim sustainability.
Recently, I saw a news flash that McDonald’s and other companies, after criticism over paper cup litter, said that paper cups are “technically recyclable.” This is not horseshoes.
Technically doesn’t count in recycling. What counts is whether the material actually gets recycled. Another thing you may not realize is that products are not necessarily recycled into the same type of product. They may be recycled into a number of dead-end products. Products that will themselves end up in landfills. As always, the best solution is to use fewer throw-aways, whenever you can.
Many products are labeled recyclable and even bear recycling symbols, such as the numbered symbols for plastics. However, not all local recycling operations are the same, and your facility may not be able to handle many “recyclable” materials.
There are, for instance, some “eco-friendly” companies using plastic pouches for cleaning products that have the word recyclable printed in large fonts. Upon closer inspection, however, you will find out that the only way to recycle these containers is to save them up and send them off to the company, which will then do something mysterious with them. How many customers are actually going to do this? In other words, these packages are not recyclable in a practical sense. These companies offering cleaning products or other products in recyclable plastic pouches, as opposed to bottles, may be pulling your leg a bit about how recyclable the package is, even they may be using less material, overall.
In an episode of TV’s Sharks, a fellow was pitching his recyclable shoes. All the materials in the shoes, he claimed, were recyclable in common operations. While I doubt that this is true, he then verified that, indeed, “the operations will not be able to recognize these shoes as being recyclable.” So, as a result, the shoes would be separated out and discarded, should you place them with your other recyclables in your recycling bin. Here, again, customers were expected to send the shoes back to the company to be recycled.
For another example among many, the coffee pods used for Keurig coffee makers, first led by Green Mountain (TerraCycle is involved in coffee-pods as well) and now made by many other brands, are under fire for piling up in landfills. Many see them as unreasonably adding to the land-fill load. There are reusable Keurig filter pods, both those supplied by Keurig and by other companies as after-market add-ons, but most people seem to buy the already filled and disposable coffee pods for their Keurig machine.
A very good coffee company called Dean’s Beans, after having challenged Green Mountain for years on their coffee pods not being made from recyclable materials, decided finally that if they couldn’t get the bigger company to switch to recyclable materials, they would make and sell their own filled coffee pods made from recyclable materials. The problem is that in many jurisdictions, it simply would not matter if the materials used for the pods were technically recyclable. For one thing, the actual pods are too small for many operations. In single-stream operations, materials are conveyed along grid systems with certain sized holes in them and small plastic containers may well fall right through. In order to know whether your area is able to accept things like Keurig style recyclable coffee pods or pill bottles, you need to know not only if the particular materials are accepted, according to the number codes, also the minimum size container accepted.
Only plastics of a certain minimum size will be recycled and if the item is too small, it will simply fall through the grates of the sorting system. Pill bottles, although technically recyclable, often are not recycled for this reason. As well, products that are made up of mixed materials, even if the individual materials are accepted, may not be recycled.
Although I would not actually accuse Dean’s Beans of greenwashing, by offering technically but not practically recyclable coffee pods, they have probably only added to the landfill burden they were so concerned about. Many of the items we throw in the recycle bin are, in fact, bound for the landfill. When I commented publicly to them about this problem they, unfortunately, failed to comment.
This is one of those terms that is about as useful as natural or holistic. While the term at least has a specific meaning, saying that a product is biodegradable is about as useful as saying it is “made of stuff.” Most materials are biodegradable. Some break down in the natural environment much faster than others, but even when they do, there is one big problem: A product being biodegradable does not mean it will not harm the environment!
Look at it this way. Many chemicals that are acutely poisonous to the human body do actually break down into less harmful substances in the body. However, they are so toxic that they can do great harm, or even cause death before enough of the substance is rendered harmless by the body’s detox system. Of course, if you ingest a very small dose, depending on the level of toxicity, your body may be able to deal with the poison, but when the dose gets too large, poisoning results. Think of nature in the same way, as an organism. A harmful chemical released into the environment in large amounts may well be biodegradable, but it can still do harm.
At other times, materials labeled as biodegradable will only break down quickly under certain conditions. Conditions that are not the conditions in a landfill, for example. Some plastics labelled as biodegradable are only quickly biodegradable if the consumer composts them, and even then it is not really that quick. Biodegradable is a vague term, and there is no certifying agency to define or regulate it. Remember, the federal or state government does not regulate the use of the word biodegradable, just as the words mentioned above, such as eco-friendly are not regulated.
This does not mean, however, that state or federal agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, cannot file suit against companies making misleading claims about the biodegradability of their products. In the early 1990’s, Mobil Chemical made a plastic trash bag using starch and claimed it was biodegradable. It turned out that the bags were only photodegradable, meaning they would have to sit out in direct sunlight for a period of time before they basically disintegrated (many plastic bags, such as some grocery bags, are photodegradable). Even when a plastic polymer is photodegradable, it does not just break down completely and disappear. Photodegradation may help break the main polymer chains into fragments small enough for biodegradation to occur, but garbage bags are buried in landfills and cut off from sunlight.
Therefore, Mobil’s claim, though technically correct, was misleading. Many companies have tried to get away with technically true but misleading claims such as this.
Mobil was subsequently sued by seven states and the Federal Trade Commission. They tried to fall back on the lack of any national standard governing the word biodegradable, but they ended up paying $150,000 in damages.
Most biodegradable plastics are not really suitable for use as packaging, by the way.
This is another term that you may not expect to end up on a greenwashing list. Nontoxic is nontoxic, right? That must be a good thing. A term used on a product label is only as good as its legal definition and the term is not regulated.
I used to work for a business that insisted on using a “safe” and natural cleaning product: Simple Green. This is one heck of an example of greenwashing. Not only is green in the name (and the word simple doesn’t hurt either), the product itself is a deep green color.
Many people have pointed out the big problem with this product: It comes in a spray bottle. When a product comes in a spray bottle, you assume this means you can spray it directly on surfaces to be cleaned, right? Yet, a careful reading of the back label reveals that the company advises you to significantly dilute the product with water before use! Doesn’t make much sense, does it? At the time I was using this product, I did not know this, and this “nontoxic” cleaning product would always irritate my lungs and my eyes. I certainly would not let it get into my mouth. The chemical butyl cellosolve used in simple green is also found in many other cleaners like Formula 409 and Windex. Sure, if you dilute the product enough and a little bit may not hurt you, but it is certainly not nontoxic. It has been claimed to contain ingredients that damage red blood cells and ingredients that are eye-irritants. While I cannot attest to the validity of the red-blood-cell damage claim, I can certainly attest to the eye irritation! It contains The product contains surfactants and solvents similar to other products.
A favorite on cosmetics and household products labels, it does not have to mean anything. The term is not legally defined and anybody can claim it. Staying with cosmetics, most cosmetics brands simply by ingredients from the cheapest sources available and mix them up into different products. While they themselves may not test the products on animals, this does not mean there was no animal testing done on any of the ingredients used.
And, while there are certifying agencies for “cruelty free” they are not all equal. For example, if a certifying body allowed a manufacturer to certify individual products, and thus display the certified logo on the label, this may lead customers to assume that all their other products are certified. On the other hand, if a certifying body allowed a company as a whole to be certified “cruelty free” they could afterward turn to different ingredient sources but still have the involved products be certified. So, consumers must be aware of the standards of any certifying body.
Another problem is that while a company’s entire line may be “cruelty free” what about the parent company? The Body Shop may make a lot of its cruelty-free products, but it’s owned by L’Oreal.
Besides all that, what is required for a company’s products to be certified cruelty-free? Does the agency inspect the companies production line, for example? While they may hold out the right to do this, this does not mean they have the resources. In the case of PETA certification, for example, all that is required from the company is to fill out an application form, one reason for their impressively long list of products. Basically, all PETA asks, in writing, is that companies “promise” not to conduct, commission, or pay for any tests on animals for ingredients, formulations, or finished products, and will not do so in the future. They do not even need to promise that the suppliers of their ingredients are cruelty-free. While the products might still display a bunny logo, making them seem to be “certified” it is really just a “PETA-pledge” and not a certification per se.
Since consumers are not aware, generally, of how many different and legitimate certifying agencies there are, there is not much to stop a company from making up a fake “cruelty free” logo.
You may have seen one of the “bunny” logos on a package. There are three main legitimate certifications that use bunnies: Leaping Bunny, PETA, and Choose Cruelty-Free (Australia-based). Be aware that many products that are certified by one of these agencies may not actually display the logo on their products, because of the additional fees involved.
In the United States, the internationally recognized Leaping Bunny certification is probably the most reliable. The Leaping Bunny logo is shown above.
Is Greenwashing All Bad?
Greenwashing defrauds consumers and erodes their trust in environmental efforts. It distracts attention away from what we can each do to help protect the environment by putting a green sheen on our purchasing habits and creating a halo effect. It hides harmful practices from public scrutiny. None of these can easily be defended. However, my readers and environmentally conscious people are not long fooled by such tactics. Products and companies that have used greenwashing as a sole means of gaining customers, while they may have fooled some consumers initially, face a backlash once people found out, often after the fact, that the claims being made were false or misleading. While this may cause some to turn away from any and all efforts that have to do with environmental protection, even when companies are legitimately doing better, another effect of the cheating can be to cause consumers to more and more demand companies to be better stewards of the environment and to be transparent in their efforts to do so. The companies that have cheated their way to a better balance sheet have helped create a culture that expects more than words, and this culture is inherited by new companies that pop up every day.
Another perhaps weaker argument is that brands are actually driving the environmental movement by the very act of greenwashing. The idea is that many people become interested in green products and environmental protection because of greenwashing activities. I personally do not think that making someone aware of something and misinforming them at the same time is so very helpful, as many people are unduly influenced by early belief formation, and what they ‘learn’ from these companies will tend to stick longer than it should. However, the fact that an argument can be made at all may be a reason to believe that greenwashing is not “all bad.”
The Seven (General) Sins of Greenwashing
Although these claims are specific examples of greenwashing, most of these fall under categories of general practices that have been outlined in this report on the Seven Sins of Greenwashing, including:
- Hidden-Tradeoffs – focusing on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other environmental issues.
- No Proof – making environmental claims that cannot be substantiated easily, if at all.
- Vagueness – claims that are so vague that their real meaning will likely be misunderstood.
- Irrelevance – claims that, though truthful, are not helpful in terms of environmentally friendly products (an example is claiming a product is free of a substance that is banned by law).
- Lesser of Two Evils – claims that may be true but seek to distract from the overall environmental impact of the category of products
- Fibbing – outright lying about environmental claims
- Worshipping False Labels – giving the impression of third-party endorsement where none exists