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What is greenwashing?

In 1960 a hotel chain came up with the bright idea to ask that guests reuse their towels for the sake of the environment, while really they were just enjoying the added benefits of lower laundry fees on their bottom line. Times have changed since the swinging 60s and society has become increasingly concerned for the environment and intrigued by the impacts of our actions and equally importantly our purchasing decisions. 

As an attempt to capitalise on the growing demand for environmentally sound products, “greenwashers” aim to make their products or services seem healthier, more natural, less wasteful, recyclable, free of chemicals or made of natural resources.

Greenwashing plays on the term “whitewashing” which refers to deliberately using misleading information to gloss over or conceal unpleasant facts about a person or organisation.

So… let’s look at some of these sneaky brands and the red flags you should avoid when navigating greenwashing companies.

Examples of Greenwashing

1. Shell Oil

Shell have attempted to cleanse the destructive nature of their work as a giant in the oil and gas industry with a dedicated webpage titled “Sustainability/Biodiversity” that looks more like a brochure for a community centre or a charity.

As seen here, greenwashing campaigns are often ambiguous and lacking concrete facts or evidence of action. Unfortunately, companies like Shell believe that with a few photos of reefs and smiling people, we may just forget the nature of their organisation. This is the (attempted) art of greenwashing and why it is important we as consumers are wise to it.

A screenshot of a social media postDescription automatically generated

Companies like this have engaged in greenwashing via commercials, media releases, social media campaigns and even community programs by touting their clean energy or pollution reduction efforts. Often companies such as these may not be making meaningful commitments or conscious business decisions to green goals.

2. Coca-Cola

As a producer of more than 20% of the world’s annual PET plastic bottle production, Coca-Cola produces a staggering 108 billion plastic bottles every year. With consumers’ growing demands for more sustainable alternatives, rather than investing in recycling capabilities and exploring existing alternatives, the soft drink giant decided to use marketing instead in 2009.

Coca-Cola’s ‘Plant Bottle’ was created as a plant based alternative to petroleum based plastics. Unfortunately, plant based plastics lack evidence of substantial benefits to the environment.

The marketing claims of a reduced carbon footprint and less harmful waste product were made with no existing full lifecycle assessment of the bottle.

Coca-Cola received significant backlash from the academic community and the public, but it was not without trying to pull the wool over our eyes. (Source)

Coca-Cola's 'Sustainable' PlantBottle Claims Full of Hot Air ...



In short, companies that make unsubstantiated claims that their products are environmentally safe or provide some green benefit are involved in greenwashing.


What does the law say?

Environmental claims are subject to the Competition and Consumer Act, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) can act against false or misleading claims. Australia also has a voluntary standard for green claims, AS 14021, which is designed to foster consumer confidence.

The United States FTC offers a set of guidelines and considerations for consumers who are concerned about identifying greenwashing. https://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/green-guides

You can check out the tell-tale signs for greenwashing and the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims;

  • how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims
  • how marketers can substantiate these claims
  • how marketers can qualify their claims to avoid deceiving consumers.

Everyday examples of greenwashing

Below is a list containing examples of unsubstantiated claims that would be considered greenwashing.

  • A plastic package containing a new shower curtain is labelled “recyclable.” It is not clear whether the package or the shower curtain is recyclable. In either case, the label is deceptive if any part of the package or its contents, other than minor components, cannot be recycled.
  • A rug is labelled “50% more recycled content than before.” The manufacturer increased the recycled content from 2% to 3%. Although technically true, the message conveys the false impression that the rug contains a significant amount of recycled fibre.
  • A garbage bag is labelled “recyclable.” Garbage bags are not ordinarily separated from other trash at the landfill or incinerator, so they are highly unlikely to be used again for any purpose. The claim is deceptive since it asserts an environmental benefit where no meaningful benefit exists.
  • .The claim of locally made (made in Australia) when products are in actual facts sources from overseas

How to know what is real green washing and what is not

The FTC offers guidelines on how to differentiate real green from greenwashed:

  • Packaging and advertising should explain the product's green claims in plain language and readable type in close proximity to the claim.
  • An environmental marketing claim should specify whether it refers to the product, the packaging, or just a portion of the product or package.
  • A product's marketing claim should not overstate, directly or by implication, an environmental attribute or benefit.
  • If a product claims a benefit compared to the competition, the claim should be substantiated.


What action needs to be taken

We need better regulation of green claims, but in the meantime here's what you can look for to minimise your risk of being greenwashed:

  • No distractions: It's great if the packet is recyclable or biodegradable, but it's not the main point. Ignore green pictures and unofficial logos and think about the impact of the product itself.
  • Specific and precise: Look for precise claims that explain and give evidence. For example, high percentages and guaranteed minimums of post-consumer recycled content.
  • Full ingredients: Listing of all ingredients in plain English, not just the active ingredients required by law. Plain English is notably lacking in the ingredients labelling of many cleaning and personal care products.
  • Whole lifecycle: Look for evidence that the whole life of the product is handled with care, not just one part of it. Emphasis on one technical aspect (such as 'biodegradable') might be masking poor environmental performance in other areas.
  • Third-party certified: Look for adherence to relevant Australian or ISO (International Standards Organisation) criteria or other recognised benchmarks. For example, certification to ISO 14001 is about ongoing improvement to the company's environmental management processes although it doesn't guarantee the product has a low environmental impact.
  • Helpful contact info: Be suspicious if there's no robust evidence of the green claim on the pack and no easy way to obtain it when you get home. Don't support a manufacturer that doesn't want you to be able to find out more about them.

7 signs of Greenwashing

Unfortunately, not all green claims can be believed. So here are the 'seven sins' of greenwashing:

  1. Vagueness
  2. Giving no proof
  3. Misleading copy
  4. False certification labels
  5. Hiding environmental trade offs
  6. Simply being the lesser of two evils
  7. Irrelevance

Vague 'greenwash' terms

Green claims that could be described as 'vague' include:

  • Environmentally, such as, environmentally friendly
  • Natural
  • Pure
  • Renewable
  • Recycled

It's also vague to use any of the following terms without any supporting evidence:

  • Eco
  • Earth
  • Enviro care
  • Saving the environment
  • Greener
  • Plant-based
  • Chemical free (this sounds silly when you consider even water is a chemical!)

More useful, specific claims should contain reliable information on how much of the product is made from renewable ingredients and should provide evidence that they've been harvested sustainably. Even when a claim looks specific and accurate, it can still be confusing and it's easy to get the wrong first impression. For example, claims such as "up to 40% recycled plastic" might sound great, but don't actually guarantee any recycled content.

Eco labels are the things to look for. These internationally recognised symbols have been created in response to rampant greenwashing. These products have been certified by independent third parties, such as Green Seal and EcoLogo, who continue to monitor products and their claims. Australian logos and standards are listed below – look out for them.



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