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Greenwash: how to spot it

by Gabrielle Chariton. Gabrielle is a Sydney-based freelance writer. 


If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you’re the sort of person who buys products labelled “natural”, “organic”, “sustainable” or “earth friendly”. It’s a small, simple way we can help reduce our impact on the planet. Right?

Well, yes. But often, you’re simply falling victim to “greenwashing”.

What is greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” refers to a marketing technique that spruiks a product’s eco-credentials, even though the product may offer only a slight environmental advantage, or – in some cases – none at all. The phenomenon has been escalating since the early nineties and these days is used to sell everything from fly spray to carpet; a 2011 study by TerraChoice found that 95% of American “green” products are being greenwashed. In 2012, Australian Guy Pearse published Greenwash: Big Brands and Corporate Scams to expose an epidemic of poor marketing but also to help “consumers pick the truly green businesses from the greenwashers, and to demand a higher environmental standard from all”.

We all want to be responsible consumers – and this is what the marketers are cashing in on. They’ve discovered that if a product is promoted as healthier, more natural, and good for the environment, many consumers will choose it over the competition, and they’ll be prepared to pay more for it: in fact, according to a 2014 survey by Nielsen, “55 per cent of global online consumers across 60 countries say they are willing to pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact”.

Manufacturers and retailers are competing for your green dollar, and their tactics are often unscrupulous: if there isn’t an obvious “green” angle to sell, in a lot of cases they’ll simply invent one – or the suggestion of one.

Properly green or just greenwashed?

The greenwashing brush is large and broad, tainting pretty much every product category, from electricity, gas, cars and building products through to food, cosmetics and clothing. Greenwashing happens in product advertisements, branding, and in product labelling.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Bombarded by choice, we rely on key words and visual cues to help us make our purchasing decisions. And we’ve almost been conditioned[/pullquote]

As consumers, we’re probably most vulnerable to the eco-label greenwash technique: bombarded by choice, we rely on key words and visual cues to help us make our purchasing decisions. And we’ve almost been conditioned: the green-coloured label with a picture of planet Earth or a leaf motif means the product inside is good, it’s natural, it contains less harmful chemicals and it’s better for the planet.

But is it? How can you tell if that product with the green label really is a better choice? Sometimes taking a closer look can help.

  • Why do you think this product is green? Is it because the brand or product name contains the word “natural”, “pure”, or “enviro-”? (Did you know that in the eight years to 2012, IP Australia granted 2,267 trademarks incorporating terms such as “green”, “eco”, “clean”, “energy”, “enviro-”, and “nature”?) Look past the big letters and focus on the fine print: what actual green benefits does the product offer? Sometimes, there are none at all – you’ve simply been sucked in by the brand name.
  • Is it a sub-brand from a more well-known, not green-centric brand? Big brands often release a “Naturals” range to lure in the eco-aware shoppers.
  • Look for other clues: ingredients lists will show if a “natural” product is in fact loaded with potentially harmful chemicals. If it was made overseas, consider the food miles involved. How much wasteful packaging is included? Is the packaging recycled or recyclable?
  • Know your labels. The best way to work out if a product’s claims have been substantiated is to look for third-party accreditation logos. But beware: not all of these are credible. Most eco-labels require products to conform to certain standards in order to gain certification, but some are made up by the product-marketing spin doctors. Green services provider Getting to Sustainability warns that “some schemes are not fool-proof and some organisations make up their own rating labels to give the perception a product is endorsed by some recognised body”. However, there are many trusted and reliable labels that indicate a product or company has been certified to meet minimum or higher environmental benchmarks. The labels that belong to the international ISEAL Alliance are a good start – some good examples are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), Fair Trade (which includes environmental requirements) and Rainforest Alliance. Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) runs Australia’s only independent, not-for-profit, multi-sector eco-labelling program. To gain certification, products must meet the internationally-recognised ISO 14024. Check out their product database to find goods that meet their rigorous standards. You can also check out the Ecolabel Index, which provides information on which organisation is behind each certification and whether or not independent third-party assessments are required. The ISEAL Alliance has published credibility principles for eco-labels – if you really want to go deep, you could check whether the certification scheme or eco-label you are interested in complies with these principles.


Some common greenwashing terms

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Sustainable” gets whacked on everything from fabric to furniture, and implies that the manufacturing process doesn’t harm the environment or devour precious natural resources[/pullquote]

Here’s a brief look at some of the common green credentials we look for when we’re out shopping, and some tips on how to verify them.

Organic – this is probably the most overused word on food-labelling these days. It’s loaded with implications of health and wellbeing and promotes strong environmental sensibilities. No pesticides here! However, the sad fact is that the word “organic” can be bandied about meaninglessly. In many cases, it’s part of a product’s brand name. The only way to be sure an “organic” food product meets a trusted standard is to look for a dependable certification – namely, Australian Certified Organic (Australia’s largest certifier for organic and biodynamic produce) or NASAA. If you don’t see these labels on food, the word “organic” could imply that the product – or some of its components – is simply derived from living matter. Or it might mean nothing at all.

Dolphin-safe/pole and line caught/FAD-free – no-one wants to think about dead dolphins while they eat their tuna-and-mayonnaise sandwich. That’s why we all choose dolphin-safe tuna. But unsustainable harvesting methods mean that all sorts of marine fauna, including sharks and turtles, fall victim to tuna fishing. And overfishing means that several species, such as yellowfin and bigeye, are under threat. That little “dolphin-safe” logo isn’t enough anymore: Greenpeace advises shoppers to look for “pole and line” or “FAD-free” canned tuna products, which are harvested using more sustainable methods with less bycatch. (“FAD” stands for “fish aggregation devices”, a fancy term for big nets that scoop up marine life indiscriminately.) And look for the species name: choose skipjack and albacore. But before you approach that daunting tuna aisle, check out Greenpeace’s excellent guide to sustainable canned tuna brands.

Sustainable – this one gets whacked on everything from fabric to furniture, and implies that the manufacturing process doesn’t harm the environment or devour precious natural resources. According to the ACCC, “For a practice to be sustainable, it must be able to be sustained indefinitely”. When assessing a product’s sustainability claims, consider the environmental impact of all stages of the product’s lifecycle – from raw materials and emissions/pollution caused during production to disposal/recyclability.

Do your research

As well as being morally reprehensible, greenwashing is actually in breach of consumer law. But it’s more than that: it takes away from consumers’ ability to effect change by choosing products that have a lower environmental impact. Rather than being blinded by the greenwash, we need to take a proactive approach: read labels, make educated decisions, check ingredient lists, follow up on eco-label accreditations. Some companies out there are environmentally responsible and committed to the green cause – we just have to learn how to spot the fake claims and recognise the legitimate ones.

Additional resources

  • The Green Electricity Guide ranks the environmental performance of Australian electricity retailers. How does yours perform? (Now compare that to their advertising rhetoric).
  • Set the bunnies free – for real – by checking the Choose Cruelty Free list (also available as a smartphone app) before heading to the supermarket. This list covers a range of product categories including cosmetics, personal care and household cleaning. The Cruelty Free Kitty blog has a good, up-to-date list of cosmetics brands that do test on animals.
  • Greenwashing is rife when it comes to eggs: we all know that “free range” labelling doesn’t always mean what it should. To be sure you’re buying eggs from happy chickens, consult the label decoders from Animals Australia and Sustainable Table. There’s also Choice’s new app, CluckAR, which comes after state and federal ministers decided that “free range” eggs can be laid by hens that never go outside in their lifetimes; the app allows you to scan egg cartons in the supermarket to find out which ones have been laid by truly free range hens.
  • Before buying a new car, check how fuel-thirsty it is at the Green Vehicle Guide.

Photo credit: top, Dean Hochman cc; middle, José Ramón Polo López cc.

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