GoEco Explains: What is Greenwashing and How Can We Avoid It?

Consumer consciousness is higher than ever as climate change moves up the political agenda, and in response big-polluting fields like fast-fashion, air travel and fossil fuels are telling some equally big fibs. 

It’s difficult to say when exactly consumer concerns really began picking up, but it’s certainly true that in the last few years every brand seems to have realised that going green is a good look. This ethos is certainly responding to consumer demand with four out of five people describing themselves as likely to choose a brand with a positive approach to the environment and 30% of consumers choosing brands that have ethical practices. 

Concerned over the bad PR that their emissions are giving them, large-companies are seeking to play down their role in climate change by playing up miniscule green changes they’ve made to their business model. But are the professed changes made by brands actually happening? And if they are, do they make a difference? 

How Big is the Greenwashing Issue?

The International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network found that, from an analysis of 500 websites, 40% of environmentally friendly claims were misleading. Meanwhile, due to the proliferation of buzzwords in relation to the green trend, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) began specific enquiries in response to the number of green adverts reaching our screens. Over 2021 – 2022 the ASA has been and will be investigating consumer understanding of ‘net-zero,’ ‘carbon neutral,’ words relating to waste like ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable,’ and claims made about the electric vehicle market to assess whether consumers are being misled. 

If you find yourself misled by the promises of a big polluter you may have been a victim of greenwashing, and while we can’t promise you any compensation we can teach you how to look out for it. 

What Does Greenwashing Actually Mean? 

Green washing is dishonest or misleading information that’s presented by a company to give them an environmentally friendly image. The phrase itself is used to separate out companies who are being duplicitous in their green agenda from genuinely ethical businesses. The best way for you to understand is if we show you, so here are some examples. 

H&M’s ‘Conscious Collection’

In 2019 H&M launched their ‘Conscious Collection’ in an effort to rehabilitate their image as a polluting fast-fashion chain. The H&M group is one of fashion’s biggest polluters in an industry which contributes to 10% of global emissions. In 2021, the Changing Markets Foundation found that 60% of H&M’s sustainability claims were unsubstantiated or misleading, and of 50 brands analysed they were the worst offenders for greenwashing. The report noted that “H&M’s Conscious Collection not only uses more synthetics than in its main collection, but also one in five items analysed were found to be made from 100% fossil-fuel derived synthetic materials.”

Volkswagen’s Fake Engines

In 2015 Volkswagen began selling the oxymoronic ‘clean diesel’ engines that claimed to reduce emission of pollutants. In reality, Volkswagen had fitted 11 million of these cars with emission test-duping software and the vehicles were spewing out 40x the allowed amount of nitrogen oxide. Following these shock revelations, Volkswagen promised to do better and got climate activists on board to help solve their pollution issues. Can a combustion engine car manufacturer really change their ways? Stay tuned. 

Starbucks Plastic Swaps

During a sustainability drive in 2018, coffee-chain Starbucks introduced a new ‘straw-less lid’ in a bid to reduce plastic waste. However, it transpired the new product actually contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combo. Starbucks countered this by claiming the new container was recyclable, however only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, and the US (Starbucks home country) exports one-third of their recycled plastic with unknown consequences. 

Groundless Ryanair Claims

Budget airline Ryanair is known for its low-prices, and in 2020 it sought to compare its discount flight costs with its so-called low emissions. Ryanair ran ads claiming to be the “lowest emissions airline”, an assertion which was found to be completely baseless. The ASA reprimanded Ryanair and pulled the ads. 

How to Avoid Greenwashing

Look Out For Buzzwords

In every example above, buzzwords like ‘waste-reduction,’ ‘low-emissions,’ or ‘conscious’ are used to draw consumers in. Look out for environmental phrases which are used with no substantiated claims or evidence. If an advert starts with the phrase ‘we care about…’ but offers no real evidence of big change, it’s greenwashing. If a word sounds nice but doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s greenwashing. 

Do Some Research

Look into companies and sectors and see what their emissions are. If Starbucks is telling you they have a recyclable cup, great! But if they’re sourcing their coffee poorly it doesn’t matter that much. Get educated on the specifics of big brands making these claims so that you can know who to avoid. If an ad says something like ‘we always try to…’ look at their websites to see what they’re actually doing. Big brands use some of the best PR firms in the world and if they were actually doing something tangible for the environment we’d know about it on their website. 

Use Your Common Sense

Do you really believe that a manufacturer like Volkswagen will be good for the planet? We know you’re smarter than that. If a fast-fashion label releases a ‘conscious’ line but all their other products are still bad? They’re a net-polluter and it doesn’t matter. Structural change is important and all the recyclable coffee cups in the world won’t change that, use your common sense about polluting industries and reorientate  yourself towards genuinely green brands. 

Reduce Your Consumption

The best way to avoid greenwashing is to reduce consumption. It’s deep rooted in our collective psyche that we can solve our problems by buying things, unfortunately this isn’t the case for the climate crisis. Cutting down on your consumption is the number one way to avoid buying damaging products.

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