August 2020
Volume 3, Issue 11

Greenwashing

To keep up with current sustainability trends and appeal to consumers, corporations want to be seen as green. In order to do so, some corporations will greenwash their products in order to appeal to the public eye and boost their reputation. Because of greenwashing, it can be difficult for consumers to determine what is real and what is fake. Read on to learn what greenwashing is and how you can spot it while you are out shopping.

Above: Representation of greenwashing, image courtesy of alive.com

Above: Representation of greenwashing, image courtesy of alive.com

What is greenwashing?

          

Above: Hotel room towel notice, courtesy of Joel Kramer via Flickr

Above: Hotel room towel notice, courtesy of Joel Kramer via Flickr

  Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a product or service is more sustainable. Usually done by companies and manufacturers, greenwashing is considered to be an unsubstantiated claim in order to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products or services are environmentally friendly.[1] This is usually done to appeal to many consumers because of the ongoing popularity and importance of sustainability in society. It allows businesses to promote how they are keeping up with current sustainable, natural, and organic trends.

Although it is commonly seen in the beauty and fashion industry, greenwashing actually originated in the hotel industry. During the 1960s hotels began to place notices inside their rooms to encourage guests to reuse their towels to “save water for the environment.” However, this was actually done to reduce laundry costs for hotels. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the term “greenwashing” was coined by Jay Westerveld to describe companies that overstated environmental and social sustainability claims about their products or services.[2]

There is currently no law stating that greenwashing is illegal. Therefore, companies are able to greenwash mainly by using phrases that make them appear more sustainable. Phrases such as “natural,” “eco-friendly,” “non-toxic,” and “certified green,” among others, are often used to signal to consumers that they are better for the planet. However, looking at the product’s origins and ingredients may tell a different story. Some companies also utilize consumer responsibility in order to make certain statements about a product or service. For example, some companies will refer to a product as recyclable but not clarify how or what parts. This puts the burden of responsibly recycling on the consumer by forcing them to figure out how to recycle it. The time and effort required to do so often means that products that could be recycled are thrown in the trash instead.

[1] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greenwashing.asp#:~:text=Greenwashing%20is%20the%20process%20of,company’s%20products%20are%20environmentally%20friendly.

[2] https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/kzmw5a/the-greenwashing-hiding-the-truth-of-your-favourite-fashion-brands

Avoiding greenwashing

We have covered what greenwashing is and where it began, but is it really that bad for companies to do? Yes! Read below on why greenwashing should be avoided, common tactics employed by various companies, and how you can be a more responsible consumer.

Why should you avoid greenwashing?

Above: Common phrases used in greenwashing, image courtesy of 100DaysofRealFood.com

Above: Common phrases used in greenwashing, image courtesy of 100DaysofRealFood.com

Many companies participate in the greenwashing process to make them seem more sustainable or “green.” Because there are so many companies that greenwash, it may sometimes feel unavoidable. However, there are many reasons why you should avoid purchasing greenwashed products. First of all, oftentimes these products are not environmentally friendly at all. Many companies overstate claims of being better for the environment such as containing recycled content, while their products contain little to no traces of sustainable components. Greenwashed products may also contain harmful or toxic substances that can be downplayed with greenwashing phrases. Sometimes companies will use the phrase “non-toxic” when referring to their ingredients when that is simply not the case when one looks at the ingredients list. Lastly, because of the sustainable qualities, or lack thereof, of greenwashed products companies tend to upcharge for products that are no different than their “non-green” counterparts.[1]

 

[1] http://greenteaparents.com/eco/greenwashing/

Tactics of Greenwashed Brands

Because of the importance and popularity of sustainability, there are many brands that participate in greenwashing. Although it is mainly seen in the fast fashion and personal care industries, greenwashing is also common in household products and other economic sectors. Below we will cover some of the tactics used by these different industries to trick consumers into purchasing their products.

In the fashion industry, brands will focus on using sustainable materials, such as organic cotton and recycled plastic, in the production of their clothing and accessories. However, when businesses do this, they usually only incorporate these materials into a small fraction of their products which allows them to make the claim that they are more environmentally friendly. Because so little sustainable materials are used, the clothing is not as “green” as is being claimed. Moreover, some brands make claims about sustainability that lack sufficient information to be supported or are not completely transparent with consumers.[1] There are also brands that use faux fur rather than animal fur in their clothing, but the faux fur used as a replacement can be worse because of the synthetic material it is composed of, typically plastic. When these furs are washed or cleaned, they release microplastics that contribute to the pollution of various water bodies, including the oceans.[2] Other greenwashed brands have been known for low labor wages for workers despite the increased price of their products given the company a greater profit margin on anything sold.[3]

In the personal care industry, there are many companies that are guilty of greenwashing. These brands will make claims that their products are formulated with organic and natural ingredients, however, they also contain potent chemicals and skin irritants that can exacerbate skin problems. Other brands make misleading claims about using pure and organic ingredients which leads consumers into thinking that they are all natural. Instead, these products usually contain formulas that are full of chemicals, including things like phenoxyethanol and parabens, which can be harsh on the skin.[4] Lastly, some brands will highlight social and environmental problems, but don’t engage in behaviors that are in line with fixing those problems.[5]

[1] https://www.feedough.com/what-is-greenwashing-types-examples/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/real-fur-vs-fake-fur-the-latest-dilemma-for-socially-conscious-consumers-1544279400

[3] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/faux-fur-vs-real-fur_n_5bc0b3c3e4b0bd9ed5599f76#:~:text=Faux%20furs%2C%20Silberman%20noted%2C%20might,not%20made%20of%20dead%20animals.&text=That%20doesn’t%20mean%20faux,be%20harmful%20to%20the%20environment.

[4] https://www.fastcompany.com/1678896/seven-ways-that-companies-greenwash

[5] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kaleighmoore/2019/11/05/fashion-brands-team-up-to-spearhead-campaign-around-wage-transparency/#26c191e4aa9b

How can you avoid greenwashing?

Although it may seem difficult to avoid greenwashing, here are some tips for avoiding the new culture of greenwashing and to find items that meet real sustainable standards.

  1. Research your brands and products before you make your purchases. Is their website transparent about their claimed sustainable practices?
  2. Be on the lookout for common greenwashing phrases – “eco-friendly,” “all natural,” and similar phrases can often be misleading.
  3. Avoid making impulse purchases and shop intentionally by creating a list and sticking to it!
  4. If you do buy or use products that are greenwashed, try to transition to a more sustainable alternative next time you shop. Do not throw out products that have not been fully used in order to buy a sustainable alternative!

Sustainable Alternatives

Although it may be difficult to spot the good from the bad, here are some good sustainable fashion alternatives that have been recommended to us by students. Brands including Patagonia, KOTN, Rothy’s, and Allbirds are known for sticking to sustainability.

Fashion

Patagonia uses recycled materials for many of their products, which allows the company to reduce their carbon emissions. They also grow their own organic cotton to save water and, again, reduce their emissions. The company is also strongly dedicated to proper working conditions for their workers and even have over half of their line fair trade certified. They are also a part of 1% For The Planet Alliance, which are businesses that understand the necessity of protecting the natural environment now and for future generations.[1] Through their Worn Wear program, Patagonia even resells used clothes from their brand.[2]

Another sustainable fashion company is KOTN. KOTN puts a strong emphasis on traceability and transparency, making sure that consumers know exactly where the products come from and how they are made. They use raw cotton grown in Egypt, and maintain close relationships with the almost 700 farmers they work with. On their website, KOTN even has an in-depth section about their production processes for consumers to look through.[3]

Rothy’s uses blends of marine plastic and thread spun from single use water bottles to create their shoes and handbags. Their website has a full page on their sustainable practices which includes a running count of the plastic water bottles that have been turned into the company’s thread for production. They also partner with the Envira Amazonia Project: A Tropical Forest Conservation Project, a payment system for ecosystem services and forest conservation, to offset their carbon emissions from shipping their products.[4] In addition, all of the packaging that their products come in is either biodegradable or recyclable.

Lastly, Allbirds is a sustainable footwear company that uses natural materials, including wool, tree fiber, sugar cane, and trino™ (a blend of tree and merino wool). The company follows the practice of measuring, reducing, and then offsetting any carbon emissions that result from the production and shipping of their shoes.[5] They also use recycled material including bottles, nylon, and cardboard to construct their products.[6]

[1] https://www.onepercentfortheplanet.org/

[2] https://www.patagonia.com/our-footprint/

[3] https://kotn.com/traceability/#chapter-1

[4] https://rothys.com/sustainability

[5] https://www.allbirds.com/pages/sustainability

[6] https://www.allbirds.com/pages/our-materials-wool

Personal Care Products

The world of sustainable personal care has become very trendy, but more importantly it’s good for the environment. Brands like Habitat Botanicals and Dr.Bronner’s make good, sustainable personal care products.

Habitat Botanicals is part of the Pela community and was formerly known as Natural Vegan. This company offers personal care products that are sustainable and low to no waste. They sell dental, bath, body, and even laundry products. Many of their products are vegan and they even offer zero-waste packaging.[1] Some products, like their toothbrushes, are 100% compostable so once you are done using it, it can be composted for your vegetable or flower garden.

Dr.Bronner’s uses organic & Fair Trade ingredients and does not use synthetic preservatives, detergents, or foaming agents. Aside from that, they have earned many certifications to ensure that their products meet the highest sustainability standards. These certifications include USDA Organic, Oregon Tilth Certified Organic, Regenerative Organic Certified, Fair for Life, NSF: Personal Care Products Containing Organic Ingredients, Leaping Bunny, Vegan Action, B Corp, Non-GMO Project, and OK Kosher. They support organic integrity and according to their website, they “Support truth in labeling! No greenwashing hype!”[2] The company also has a strong sense of corporate responsibility throughout the entire process of production and shipping.

There are many other sustainable brands that can pop up in a quick Google search. We encourage you to explore and see all of the companies that are truly making sustainable products. We also encourage you to consider supporting small businesses, shopping local, shopping second hand, and even try DIYs if you can!

[1] https://habitatbotanicals.com/pages/about

[2] https://www.drbronner.com/

Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainable brands and living, visit Brightly. They research brands and make the best sustainable recommendations for fashion, home, beauty, and wellness.

 

Stay in Contact with Residence Life Sustainability

Email: sustainability@reslife.tamu.edu

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Facebook: Aggies Going Green

Twitter: @TAMUResLife

Webpage: reslife.tamu.edu/living/sustainability