Guest post by Emma Sarran Webster
Sustainable products used to be rare. They were created and purchased by a relatively small fraction of eco-minded consumers. But as the climate crisis worsens, more people are choosing to spend their money mindfully. And companies are realizing the power of going green — or at least appearing to go green. You may have heard of the term “greenwashing”- but what does it look like? Learn how to spot greenwashing before you make a purchase.
What does greenwashing mean?
Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers and making a product seem sustainable for the sake of a sale. “Larger companies recognize that sustainability-minded consumers are a real group to be pandered to and appealed to,” Sustainable expert Ashlee Piper tells Pakt. As more and more consumers make decisions on products based on their environmental impact, appearing sustainable is big money.
The misinformation isn’t only deceitful, it’s also dangerous for customers and the planet. “We see it with racism in America — the lie that it is over and a thing of the past allows it to be perpetuated and to harm people daily,” Addie Fisher, founding editor of Old World New, tells Pakt. “When brands lie about their products being sustainable and perpetuate greenwashing, the Earth and people will still be harmed. No matter the false facade they build up about being ‘eco-friendly.’”
Clever marketing and vague claims can make it extremely difficult to distinguish greenwashing from true sustainability. Even if you’re shopping with the best intentions, it’s likely that you’ve fallen prey to false product claims before. But it doesn’t have to happen again. Here are four tips on how to spot greenwashing at the store.
How To Spot Greenwashing: Four Tips
Ask yourself if the product is built to last
A key to sustainable consumption is consuming less. This means buying products that are built to last. Truly green companies use that as a guiding principle. “The biggest tell as to how allegiant a company is to being sustainable is the longevity of their product,” Piper says. “Do they intend to sell you more later, [like] something that constantly needs a refill [or] something that degrades over time? [If] the company is really thoughtful about end-of-life or circularity, that’s important because that’s less money for them. It signals to me that they’re interested in doing the right things.” If you’re looking at a product that has a short lifespan, it’s an easy way to spot greenwashing at work.
Watch out for greenwashed packaging
It’s easy to make packaging look eco (hint: lots of earth tones), and companies can even make it somewhat sustainable (like by reducing the plastic). But even if they’re fully plastic-free on the outside, that’s no guarantee about the rest of the product. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a product's sustainability by its packaging. Piper says she’s seen an “extreme influx” of greenwashing companies touting things like “post-consumer plastic” or “less plastic” in packaging. But “the contents inside are still tested on animals, laden with chemicals, [and] pollute the waterways.” Bottom line: If the only thing sustainable about a product is the packaging, it’s not truly green, it’s greenwashing. Instead of choosing items that “look” the most eco-friendly, look at the fine print on the label. Sustainable products will have an ingredient list that you can understand. And you’ll typically find a certification of some sort on the packaging as well.
Don’t fall for greenwashing buzz words
Speaking of packaging, plenty of greenwashing brands like to plaster their products (and marketing materials) with buzz words. This is a quick way to spot greenwashing. What’s a greenwashing “buzz word”? Look out for words like, “natural” and “clean” that don’t actually mean much. There are no real standards for what qualifies as “natural.” This allows dishonest companies to use the word quite freely. The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, does sometimes intervene, but it’s rare. And the same goes for many other vague buzz words. Fisher also points out that greenwashing companies often incorporate and advertise one “natural” ingredient or material while the overall product is “still toxic and not sustainable.”
The FTC’s Green Guides also caution consumers to watch for words like “degradable,” “free-of,” and “renewable.” These words may be meaningful, but only if used correctly and honestly. For example, if a brand brags that their product is “free-of” a harmful substance that’s not typically in that kind of product anyway, it’s pretty meaningless. This is a greenwashing tactic to score easy brownie points with environmentally conscious consumers.
Companies that are using greenwashing to sell products will rely on vague words. Truly eco-friendly businesses will prove their claims. This is where certification comes into play. Look for symbols like B Corp, Certified Organic, and USDA Biobased when picking products.
Look for transparency and specificity
Still not sure exactly what greenwashing means? Consider this. Greenwashing companies love to tell you they’re green — but can they explain exactly how? If they’re doing the work behind the scenes, you should be able to read all about it on their website. Look in their About section or a dedicated sustainability section, like the Pakt Responsibility page. And, as the FTC notes in its Green Guides, the information should be specific. What parts of the product and process are green, and how so? What exactly are the environmental benefits of what they’re doing? If they’re not getting into those nitty-gritty details, it’s probably because they don’t have much to share.
Another way to spot greenwashing is through non-specific “sustainable actions” that aren’t related to their product. A particularly widespread example of greenwashing? Saying they’ll plant a tree for every purchase- something both Piper and Fisher warn of. “That’s great, but is the brand moving their products toward more sustainable production and consumption processes as they plant trees, too?” Fisher notes. These types of greenwashing tactics are an easy pass for companies hoping to score extra points with eco-minded consumers without making any changes to their business processes.
Beyond these key questions, Fisher recommends checking for trustworthy third-party certifications and understanding harmful ingredients and material. Then, always reading up on what your potential purchase contains.
Learning how to spot greenwashing will help you make informed purchases- and ensure that untrustworthy companies aren’t rewarded for deceptive marketing practices.
Know someone that’s probably still wondering, “what does greenwashing mean?” Share this article. The more people who know how to spot greenwashing, the healthier our planet will be!
Wondering how Pakt measures up when it comes to sustainability? Read our Transparency Report
Emma Sarran Webster is a Chicago-based journalist covering a wide range of topics, including sustainability, travel, wellness, and social justice. Her work has also appeared in Teen Vogue, Mic, Allure, MTV News, Cosmopolitan, WIRED, and more. Before returning to her native Chicago, Emma lived in both London and New York City; and she continues to be passionate about exploring the world, particularly through the realms of sustainable and ethical tourism and outdoor adventure. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and see more of her work at EmmaSarran.com.