Greenwashing - something of a buzzword at the moment but shrouded in some confusion- what exactly is it, how did it come to be so prevalent and how can we learn to identify it? Glad you asked!
In the beginning, there was unconscious manufacturing and consumption of goods. Then there came awareness of the destructive impact of our mindless production and consumption of goods, and consumers began seeking out more sustainable companies and products. Enter: Greenwashing. Companies have cottoned-on to people’s genuine desire to make more mindful spending decisions and some have made genuine changes, whilst many others employ marketing strategies to appear more environmentally conscious than they actually are.
Why is greenwashing such a big problem now?
We live in a time where the wellbeing of the planet is now on everyone’s radar- the way we’ve been operating as societies and individuals now threatens our very existence. Recent research compiled by Melbourne-based consumer research company Mobuim showed the numbers of consumers wishing to use their purchasing power to ‘do the right thing’ by the planet has climbed by nearly one-third since last year – from 62% to 82%.
The unavoidability of this issue means few companies can get away without making some effort to be or at least appear environmentally conscious. To further exacerbate the situation, our increased understanding of neurobiology and psychology has been integrated into the marketing sphere. This makes for ripe terrain for companies to configure their spiels in such a way that we’re lead to believe they have the best interests of the planet at the forefront of their ideals, when this is not always the case. What exactly can it look like? Here are a couple of examples.
Examples of Greenwashing:
Since many of us are time poor, we tend to be most vulnerable to greenwashing via packaging. This is where we scan for certain words, phrases and visual cues that consciously and subconsciously indicate the greener choice; green-coloured labels, pictures of planet earth, words like ‘eco-friendly’ are all examples of this. A closer look is required to determine if the environmental friendliness of the product (and packaging) in anyway resembles it’s labelling.
Bioplastics. The name itself and the companies promoting it paint the picture that it’s just like plastic, but biodegradable- aka the perfect solution to the growing landfill and plastic-filled ocean problem! Bioplastics are plastics made from bio based polymers that are engineered to perform like normal petrochemical plastics. In nearly every case, they need a certain set of conditions to break down in such as levels of oxygen and sunlight that aren’t present in a landfill or the ocean. They also demand a certain amount of petrochemicals in their production phase so often have a similar amount of ‘plastic products’ embedded within them. Contrary to what the name would indicate, ‘biodegradable’ plastic bags don’t actually fully degrade, but instead just break down into smaller parts unless processed in a digester specifically designed to create the conditions for biodegradation. What is actually needed is a compostable bag, which is a different thing entirely.
Another way companies can give the illusion of environmental mindfulness is simply by including a little spiel on the need to protect the planet and biodiversity without identifying exactly how the business is doing so. E.g.:
A lot of pretty pictures and markedly minimal reference to any genuine environmental protection action.
How to detect greenwashing
Fear not! We as consumers can equip ourselves with the tools and information to differentiate between the authentically planet-focused and those who talk the talk without walking the walk. Look out for the misdirect; where companies make a claim which may indeed be true, but are really only there to distract, such as when a packaging is labelled ‘made from recycled material’ but that same product may be bleached so it appears as white as unrecycled.
Look out for unsubstantiated claims. The best form of proof is third party verification, although it’s important to verify the validity of the third party.
To me, greenwashing feels like something of a ‘get out of jail free card’, allowing us to believe we can continue with our current consumption habits, as long as the product marketing includes phrases like ‘ethically and sustainably sourced’ or ‘biodegradable’. Our planet, ever giving and nurturing, is calling each of us to take a deep, honest look at our habits and desires, and take responsibility for them. Exactly what that looks like will vary with each individual, yet it is always deeply rewarding and life affirming.