It’s not always obvious when seemingly sustainable businesses are greenwashing. This can make searching for and supporting businesses that genuinely are doing their best to minimise their environmental impact seem like a hopeless task. However, detecting greenwashing once you know what to look out for is not as hard as you might think.
In this article, we’ll help you support sustainable businesses by going through some of the most common greenwashing red flags.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the misrepresentation by businesses of their practises in order to seem more sustainable than they really are. It’s intentionally deceitful in order to gain profit by attracting customers who care about sustainability.
Greenwashing is incredibly common, which can make detecting it a challenge. In 2021, the European Commission revealed that over 40% of reported sustainability claims made online by businesses were exaggerated.
What’s wrong with greenwashing?
A study conducted in 2020 found that around 45% of UK customers are interested in buying products which benefit the environment. Greenwashing misleads these well-meaning customers into acting unsustainably.
Businesses that greenwash may not actually have any intention of reducing their environmental impact, and customers that buy their products might even be unknowingly harming the environment while thinking that they’re benefiting it.
Not only does this have a direct negative impact on our planet, but greenwashing can also undermine customers’ faith in sustainability claims. If their favourite sustainable businesses are revealed to be greenwashing, customers might be put off supporting environmentally conscious businesses in case they are being dishonest in future.
Some examples of greenwashing
- An advert made by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, which appeared on BBC World in 2007, claimed that palm oil plantations provide ideal habitats for local Malaysian wildlife, though they actually contribute heavily to deforestation and habitat loss.
- In 2018, McDonald’s replaced its plastic straws in UK restaurants with recyclable paper straws. However, the thickness of the new straws makes them difficult to recycle, and mostly they are thrown into general waste.
- Volkswagen has cheated emissions tests by fitting vehicles with a software which alters their performance to reduce their emissions during testing, meaning that some cars that passed the tests actually emitted up to 40 times the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.
- Last year, Korean skincare company Innisfree advertised their new ‘paper bottle’, but it was later found that the bottle was still made of plastic, and only the wrapping on the outside of the bottle was made of paper.
These examples were widely publicised and reported by major news outlets — but what if you need to do the work yourself? This might seem like a daunting task, but it’s not difficult when you know what to look out for. Below we’ve listed some red flags that are generally easy to spot and often mean that the company is greenwashing.
Greenwashing red flags
Meaningless jargon without further information
Using buzzwords like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘ethical, ‘sustainable’, or ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean that businesses are greenwashing, but the real issue is when they don’t explain in clear terms or provide evidence to back up their claims. Companies have no reason not to disclose their sustainability initiatives to their customers, so if they don’t, they’re probably greenwashing.
Misleading emissions reporting
Many consumers take businesses at their word when they make emissions reduction or offsetting claims, so businesses are often misleading in the way they report their emissions. When researching a company’s emissions claims, keep the following questions in your mind:
- How many scopes do they include? Do they only include Scope 1 (direct emissions)? If so, they aren’t reporting a very large proportion of their emissions. For example, 95% of Starbucks emissions fall into Scope 3.
- Have they set an emission reduction target? If so, have they explained how they will reach that target, and does the target seem reasonable?
- If they say they are net zero, do they say how much they have reduced in comparison with how much they have offset? Sustainable businesses should aim to reduce their emissions as much as possible and only offset what they cannot reduce.
Overly positive about their sustainability credentials
Though businesses obviously want to project the best image of themselves to their customers, they should still be honest about their mistakes and how they can do better. If a business’ sustainability claims seem too good to be true, they may well be greenwashing.
Lack of certification
Environmental certifications are an easy way to verify that a business is true to their word when it comes to sustainability. However, it’s generally expensive to be certified, so not having a certification is not a certain indicator of greenwashing, especially for small businesses. Nonetheless, it can be useful to look out for certifications when researching a company’s green claims. Some certifications that are recognised in the UK include the Leaping Bunny, Carbon Trust, and Forest Stewardship Council.
Really dishonest businesses might use uncertified labels to make their products look more sustainable. Always research the certifications that companies use to ensure they’re telling the truth.
Only a limited collection of their products is sustainable
Brands that truly care about the environment make all of their products sustainably. If a business markets some of its products as more environmentally friendly than others, chances are they do not genuinely aim to benefit the planet, and simply want to win more customers.
This refers to sustainability claims that companies make, when actually they’re just following the law and are no better than any other business in their industry. For example, an aerosol spray might be advertised as CFC-free, even though CFCs are banned under the Montreal Protocol.
Rebranding to look more sustainable
Brands might change their logos or invent new mottos to try and present a greener image. For example, in 2000, BP changed their official name from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and changed their logo to a floral shape. This is designed to deceive customers subconsciously, so it’s important not to buy into a company’s new image straight away — first, do some research into their sustainability practises to figure out how much effort they are really putting into minimising their environmental impact.
This is not an exhaustive list of ways that businesses misrepresent their commitment to sustainability, though they are some of the easiest to spot and potentially some of the most telling.
Now you know how to detect dishonest environmental claims — but not all businesses that are vocal about their sustainability initiatives are greenwashing. So how can you find businesses that are genuinely committed to minimising their environmental impact?
How can you tell the difference between greenwashing and green marketing?
Green marketing is advertising products or services based on their environmental benefits. It’s what businesses that truly mean well for the environment do.
With so many companies lying so persuasively about their environmental practises, their differences with the ones that are being honest might seem imperceptible. However, there are some ‘green flags’ to look out for that could be a good indicator of whether they really prioritise sustainability:
They admit their mistakes and how they can improve
It’s a really positive sign that a business is being honest if they disclose what they still haven’t done sustainability-wise. Hayne House is a great example of a business that has shown exactly what they’ve done already to reduce their impact on the environment and what they plan to do in the future.
Provision of data to back up their claims
It’s always promising if a business cares enough to have done the work behind finding out the data on their sustainability credentials. However, data can be misleading, so it’s important to research what else the business has said about their commitment to the environment.
They care about their products’ afterlife
Companies might offer recycling or collection schemes to ensure that their products never go on to significantly damage the environment at any stage throughout their life cycle. For example, Bramley offers a recycling scheme through which finished bottles are turned into garden furniture.
Greenwashing is often hard to detect, but it’s certainly not impossible, especially now that you’re aware of some of the most common ways that businesses try to deceive their customers.
In summary, here’s a checklist of red flags you should look out for:
- Meaningless jargon without further information
- Misleading emissions reporting
- Too much positivity about their sustainability credentials
- Certification or a lack thereof
- False certifications
- Marketing a limited collection of products as sustainable
- Irrelevant claims
- Rebranding to look more sustainable
When searching for a sustainable business to support, always do your research into business’ claims and never take them at their word. If you’re still unsure of the legitimacy of their credentials, consult the Green Claims Code checklist and see how many the business could answer ‘yes’ to. You can also always get in contact with the business to ask them about their environmental commitments — this way, you might even inspire them to operate more sustainably.