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What is…greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound

In the past, whitewash was used on walls to conceal dirt and cracks to make them look better. Since then, the term ‘whitewashing’ has come to mean focusing on the good parts of a situation or telling a little white lie (or two) to convince people that things are better than they really are. ‘Greenwashing’ is essentially the same thing - companies making claims which make their products appear more eco-friendly than they actually are in order to cash in on the growing demand for ‘green’ goods.

We’re all becoming more concerned about our environment and the impact of the products and services we use so greenwashing is used to convince us that products are healthy and environmentally-friendly. Companies use it to appear environmentally responsible to pander to a culture increasingly pro-environmentalist and ultimately, increase their profits. As consumers, we are willing to spend more money for safe, environmentally friendly products however in reality, these claims are mostly unsubstantiated and brazenly false.

Be greenwash savvy. As we’ve seen, greenwashing is market-wide but how do you recognise it? Here’s a couple of tricks they use:

Beware the word ‘natural’:

Unfortunately, the word ‘natural’ can be difficult to define. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) states ‘Natural' means essentially that the product is comprised of natural ingredients, e.g.ingredients produced by nature, not the work of man or interfered with by man. This means that ‘natural’ should only be used to describe food and drinks to which nothing has been added and/or have undergone only the processes necessary to make them fit for human consumption. To get around this, companies often use the phrase ‘made from natural ingredients’ which can mean almost anything - some of the ingredients were at some point derived from a plant or animal!

Manufacturers can 'buy' certifications without actually meeting standards. Methods such as 'sustainability purchasing' can be as simple as choosing supplies with recognised green certifications which will qualify that company as healthy or environmentally friendly.

Diversion tactics:
Greenwashers focus on the one part of their product which is good in the hope that you’ll not notice ‘undesirable’ bits! For example, you might see soap labelled ‘SLS free’ (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate - a widely used, inexpensive chemical) but if you look closely, you’ll probably see parabens listed in the ingredients. So the product is still full of chemicals but you’re distracted by the fact that it is free from some ingredient you’ve probably never heard of!

But don’t let them win! Don’t give up on choosing better products. Whatever the claim is make sure you check the packaging for:

  • recognised certifiers such as Fair Trade, Freedom Trade RSPCA Monitored, Red Tractor, PETA, FSC and so on
  • look out for vague terms which try to trick you - ‘cotton-like’ or ‘cotton-feel’ doesn’t mean it’s cotton!
  • look out for diversion tactics - if a product is promoting one key feature, check out what they’re hiding
  • don’t rely on brand names or ‘rustic’ packaging – just because a company has an eco-sounding name or style, it doesn’t mean that it’s green
  • check out company credentials - it’s easy and quick to search for a company online and ask questions
  • follow ethical groups online
  • share the info with family and friends and help others avoid the greenwash!