Have you ever gotten coffee and noticed that the cup has the phrase "100% compostable" in green lettering? Or gone to your favorite department store and noticed a new, 'eco–friendly' line of clothing? If so, you've likely fallen victim to greenwashing—the corporate go–around to sustainability.
Greenwashing might sound like an environmentally conscious concept, but it's actually quite the opposite. With the rising demand for sustainable products, businesses have shifted marketing practices to reflect conscious consumerism. However, green marketing doesn't necessarily equate to actual sustainability. This evolving desire for eco–friendly branding has prompted a rise in greenwashing: when companies spend more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing their environmental impact.
Though it can appear in many forms, greenwashing is generally a sneaky corporate tactic that misleads consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands—and it's been around for a while. In the mid–1980s, the multinational energy corporation Chevron was accused of greenwashing after releasing a series of expensive ads "to broadcast its environmental dedication," all while violating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. More recently, greenwashing has evolved to encompass a variety of tactics ranging from misleading labels to coverups.
A common corporate tactic is the vague labeling of products as 'eco–friendly.' What does this even mean? Think about the eco–friendly coffee cup that is apparently compostable. You're now convinced that your favorite coffee company is minimizing their environmental footprint, when, in reality, that cup likely requires very specific conditions—like aerobic bacteria cultivated in industrial compost bins—in order for it to decompose quickly. It could take a year for the cup to decompose in a DIY compost bin. And in many urban areas where residents don't have backyards, composting is often inaccessible. This means that compostable items often still end up in landfills, where they could take a century to decompose.
Another tactic is when businesses use marketing schemes that have hidden trade–offs. For example, take the new Starbucks lid created to prevent the use of plastic straws and minimize the company's plastic production. The new lid actually uses more plastic than the old one due to the new curved lip. Even worse, customers are still asked if they'd like a straw with their drinks.
Maybe you remember when H&M released a line of 'green' clothing called Conscious in 2019. H&M said the clothes were made from organic cotton and recycled polyester. On average, a single cotton shirt requires around 2,700 liters of water to produce. In reality, the line of 'sustainable' clothing is not sustainable at all.
Greenwashing doesn't just come in the form of deceitful product marketing. Businesses have also made misleading promises on company–wide levels. H&M may misrepresent the actual impact of its sustainable clothing line, but its false advertising goes beyond that. When you consider that the Conscious line makes up a minuscule amount of the company's total inventory, its dedication to sustainability as a whole sounds a little ridiculous. H&M has an entire page on its website displaying its dedication to the environment, but only a tiny portion of its products are even labeled "sustainable" in the first place.
Luckily, consumers have become more familiar with greenwashing as a concept over time, and companies now face more criticism for these deceptive marketing practices. But we need to continue to be mindful of our consumption. Go beyond simply reading labels on products. Use online resources from the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Stewardship Council, and Carbon Trust Standard to help you better understand the real impact of the goods and services you use. Keep an eye out for greenwashing tactics from your favorite brands. And if you find that a brand is only projecting an image of sustainability rather than investing in real sustainable practices, then you should probably reconsider your brand preferences.
Businesses rely on our mindless consumption to make profits, but we can't continue to fall victim to surface–level environmentalism. As consumers, we must carefully choose where we spend our money. By remaining environmentally conscious and critical of false advertising, we can create a market where it isn't in businesses' best interests to greenwash. There are plenty of brands that are making genuine efforts to foster sustainable consumption in every aspect of their business models. Let's support them instead.