Sustainability is the latest marketing buzzword and big business. But with it comes the pervasive practice of greenwashing. Find out how to avoid it.
Ever gone into a shop and picked up a bottle of sunscreen, a lipstick, shampoo or whatever, because you spotted the words ‘clean’, ‘green’, ‘organic’ or natural’ on the label? But, then you turn the bottle around (is that non-biodegradable packaging?) look at the ingredients and find the product riddled with parabens, phthalates, petrochemicals, microplastics, heavy metals, allergens, irritants and a bunch of other endocrine disrupting, potentially carcinogenic, toxic and polluting ingredients?
Or, have you ever bought a garment from a brand claiming to be sustainable, biodegradable or made from eco-friendly fibre, only to find out it was made from unsustainable materials like plastic, dyed with toxic dyes, and likely manufactured in a sweatshop with appalling labour conditions? This is greenwashing.
Sustainability is the latest marketing buzzword and by 2025, the global green technology and sustainability market is expected to reach US$36.6 billion, more than triple what it was in 2020. According to a Mckinsey study, “Fashion’s New Must Have: Sustainable Sourcing At Scale”, online searches for “sustainable fashion” tripled between 2016 and 2019.
In the Covid-era, as more people ponder the impact their consumer choices have on the health of the planet and humanity, sustainable products are set to become more alluring for consumers. This means big business, and a lot of companies are, of course, jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, many of them prioritising profit over sustainability, and taking advantage of well intentioned consumers.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is misleading marketing, where a product, service or company is presented as better for the environment without any documentation to back this claim. Companies make vague claims about the eco-friendliness of their products, or brands don't disclose certain information to make their actions seem more sustainable, or ethical, than they truly are, neither of which are inherently illegal today.
These claims come in a wide range of forms, including statements about: environmental sustainability, recycling, biodegradability, energy and water efficiency, labour conditions, impact on animals and the natural environment, or non-toxic, 'free of', or 'all natural' claims.
To capture consumers’ attention—and the green dollar—companies resort to greenwashing without actually delivering on their promises of a healthier and environmentally friendly product. Greenwashing is the difference between saying and doing, and it occurs in every industry, from automobiles, to food, fashion and of course, beauty.
How can you avoid Greenwashing?
Ingredients in a product matter. How, where and by whom a product was made matters. Where the product ends up at the end of its life cycle, and the environmental impact it has, matters. It’s important to identify greenwashing, and replace it with sustainable practices, both as a company and a consumer.
Next time you buy a product, whether it's skincare, clothing, or household items, don't just get sucked in by the vague 'earth friendly' and 'green' marketing. Read the label carefully. Using one organic ingredient and claiming the product is organic, or suggesting a product is eco-friendly based on a single environmental attribute is greenwashing.
Do your research into materials, ingredients and the company you are purchasing from so that you can make an informed decision about what you’re buying. If a company isn't transparent and can't provide any evidence to back its claims, avoid them.
What to Look For
Next time a brand claims to be clean, sustainable or ethically made, look for standards and certifications on their label that back up their claims : GOTS, Certified Organic (like USDA Organic), FairTrade, Cradle to Cradle, Leaping Bunny or PETA certified, OEKO TEX, B-Corp.
Sustainable brands often clearly state how they meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, making it easier for consumers to make informed choices, and they are transparent about their materials and supply chain. A company legitimately using green marketing is honest about their practices, and is more likely to write considered and detailed statements about their business, ethos and production.
Look for brands who offer a holistic approach to sustainability, from production, materials used, transport and packaging— not just an 'eco' capsule collection made from organic cotton.
And if a product you love isn’t as transparent, cruelty-free or sustainable as you expected, then ask they brand why not. As consumers we have the power to pressure companies to create sustainable and circular design solutions.
Check out apps like Think Dirty and resources like Environmental Working Group that can help you determine how clean and eco-friendly your products really are. The Australian Government has also written a guide, and a Guide Against Greenwashing has also been put together by a Norwegian sustainable businesses non-profit to help companies avoid greenwashing.
Vote with your wallet.