We, as a society with the aid of technology, have “advanced” to a time where comfort and convenience take priority. It’s simply unfathomable to think of living without certain things like electricity or internet. Without plastic, processors, or refrigeration. Without other people who know how to fix the systems that run our lives.
Economics teaches us that a major measure of quality of life is an increase in access and ability to obtain conveniences. Current generations compared to their great-grandparents are exponentially more well-off when measured in this way. Increasing wealth means that people can buy more things. Businesses take advantage of this by marketing nearly every activity that we encounter in our modern lives as an inconvenience – therefore creating an easy avenue to sell their product as a convenient solution.
When we have problems, our first instinct is to buy a solution. From a broken plate, to a leaking washing machine, and even with stopping climate change. Instead of looking for a way to repair whatever is broken, we’d rather buy a replacement or technology that will fix it for us.
It’s the same for when we want to be more sustainable. Instead of evaluating what we might be able to live without, we see what we can buy that’s more sustainable than what we usually buy.
True sustainability means accepting that we don’t need everything available to us. That we simply don’t need a “solution” to problems that are all portrayed as tedious and time-consuming. But businesses and the profit motive that drives them work tirelessly through their marketing efforts to assure us that consumption is an inevitability in our lives. That we truly need everything they produce. That we shouldn’t question the idea of buying less (because you can’t sell what doesn’t get bought), but rather we should buy in a manner that makes the world a “better place”.
I bring all of this up as a preface to the real point of this article – greenwashing. The only reason greenwashing exists is because we, as a collective human race, have garnered an all-encompassing reliance on incorporations to produce everything in our lives. We buy our food, houses, clothing, technology, furniture, plumbing, transportation, electricity, heating – everything – from businesses working to make a profit. This is important because if we, the consumers, want more sustainable options, we must rely on businesses to provide those options to us.
So, keep this in mind as you read the rest of this article.
Think back to the last time you bought something touted as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” Can you remember your thought process?
Did it go something like this? Product X, say a box of trash bags, for example, is on your shopping list. You venture to that aisle of the store intending to buy the brand you always get, maybe Hefty. While looking for the right ones, you notice a version labeled “Hefty Ultra Strong Renew Recycled Material Bags.” You decide that this would be a better and more responsible purchase – same product, same function, but seemingly more sustainable. Life goes on, and you don’t think about it again until the next time you need to buy trash bags.
This exact situation has happened to me several times, which is why I used it as an example here (however, any “eco-friendly” item can stand in for Product X). Chances are you’ve never looked into how “sustainable” your responsible purchase (that you most likely paid a premium for) actually is. Those trash bags sound good for the environment, using words like “renew” and “recycled material,” but are they? What do those words really mean? What about “sustainable,” “eco-friendly,” “compostable,” or “plant-based”? In terms of products being sold to consumers, what implications do all of this environmental jargon actually have on the product you’re buying?
That’s hard to say.
Unfortunately, due to few regulations regarding claims made on packaging, companies often falsely advertise their products as more environmentally friendly or sustainable, when there’s actually no difference. This phenomenon is called greenwashing.
What is the definition of greenwashing?
Greenwashing is when a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact. It is a deceitful advertising gimmick intended to mislead consumers who prefer to buy goods and services from environmentally conscious brands.
Put simpler, greenwashing is when businesses lie about being eco-friendly. Keep reading to gain a better understanding of some famous examples, and how it impacts us.
Notable Examples of Greenwashing
Greenwashing is prevalent everywhere: big companies, local businesses, clothing, cleaning products, food, etc. It’s simply inescapable. Here are some of the most egregious examples by some well-known companies.
Hefty Recycling Bags
The description on Hefty’s website for their recycling bags:
“Reduce your environmental impact with Hefty® Recycling bags designed to handle your heaviest recycling jobs. Available in 13 and 30-gallon sizes and ideal for daily use or seasonal cleaning, these transparent bags make it easy to sort your recyclables and avoid the landfill.”
Hefty promotes these bags in commercials by showing them filled with recyclables being put out at the curb to be picked up. The disclaimer, which is only on screen for about two seconds, recommends checking with your locality if you can even use plastic bags to return recyclables. And an inconspicuous statement on the back of their boxes says that the product was developed for use in municipal recycling programs where applicable.
Unfortunately, very few cities allow plastic bags to be recycled because they get caught in the sorting machines. Additionally, the low-density polyethylene plastic (LPDE #4) isn’t cost-effective for recycling facilities to process.
In a recent class-action lawsuit against Reynolds Consumer Products, Inc. (the owners of Hefty), the lawyers argue that because the bags are explicitly used and advertised for recycling purposes that consumers will reasonably infer that the bags themselves are recyclable too. Obviously.
Not only are the Hefty bags not recyclable, but any recyclables received inside of the bags are considered “contaminated” and are most likely thrown out anyways. What a convoluted effort by Hefty to market their products.
A description on the back of Tide purclean laundry detergent reads: “A powerful, plant-based clean you can feel good about.” But, does it feel good to find out that only 75 percent of the laundry detergent is actually plant-based? To find out that the other 25 percent consists of non-plant-based ingredients, including some derived from petroleum?
On top of that, Tide doesn’t even make information on what petroleum-based ingredients are in its purclean laundry detergent.
Last month, the National Advertising Division (NAD) recommended and Tide agreed to modify its plant-based claims to avoid conveying the unsupported message that the laundry detergent is 100 percent plant-based or that the “powerful cleaning power” is derived solely from plant-based ingredients.
Cascade Platinum Liquid Dish Detergent
We’ve all seen the famous “we do it every night” commercial of Cascade’s Platinum Liquid Dish Detergent. If you haven’t, watch it below. This is a classic and perfect example of greenwashing.
“Do it. Run your dishwasher every night with Cascade Platinum,” the ad says. “A load with as few as eight dishes is all it takes to save water. An Energy Star certified dishwasher uses less than four gallons per cycle, while a running sink uses that every two minutes.”
Okay, so it is true that the Energy Star criteria for a standard dishwasher require it to use less than or equal to 3.5 gallons of water per cycle. However, there are no standards for how much water you use when hand-washing dishes – it’s highly variable. If you leave the sink running the whole time, you’ll certainly use a substantial amount more of water than if you turn it off while scrubbing your dishes.
So, can we really believe Cascade? It seems highly plausible (and likely) that we can wash eight dishes by hand using less than four gallons of water. Additionally, and more to the point, wouldn’t we save more water if we just waited to run the dishwasher until it is full? After all, the wash cycle uses the same amount of water whether it’s full or only a quarter full. That seems like the truly more eco-friendly option.
But of course, that would mean using less Cascade Platinum Liquid Dish Detergent.
Earth Rated “Compostable” Dog Poop Bags
Compostable dog poop bags initially seem like an awesome idea – unless you actually know anything about composting. Pet waste – including dog and cat poop – is generally NOT SAFE to compost at home. Dog and cat manure might contain hard-to-kill pathogens that pose serious health risks to humans. So, the only option here is to take your dog poop packaged in these compostable dog poop bags to a commercial composting facility that accepts pet waste.
Do you know of any? Probably not. There are very facilities in the US that accept pet waste.
So, what’s the point? Earth Rated is using the green buzzword “compostable” to dupe consumers into thinking they are making a responsible purchase, when in fact, their product offers no environmental benefit (at least in the US).
We all remember the mayhem of Starbucks’ 2018 announcement stating they would ban single-use plastic straws from all stores by 2020. Now if you order a cold drink from the worldwide coffee giant, the plastic lid is similar to a sippy cup.
The well-intentioned change canceled itself out when it was revealed that the new plastic lids actually use more plastic than the previous lid/straw combo. Starbucks does not dispute this claim. In fact, they attempt to justify the decision by stating that “the strawless lid is made from polypropylene, a commonly-accepted recyclable plastic that can be captured in recycling infrastructure, unlike straws which are too small and lightweight to be captured in modern recycling equipment.”
Although everything in this statement is true, it’s a faulty assumption that the new plastic lids will actually get recycled. There are many reasons that recyclable plastic does not get recycled. Easy access to recycling bins, access to recycling programs, and contamination are all reasons that only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled.
Chances are, Starbucks’s increased use of plastic in its lids, instead of using non-recyclable straws, has little to no positive impact on the environment. Chances are, Starbucks used this change to garner some good PR from the growing anti-straw movement, rather than implementing any truly sustainable adjustments.
The popular and notoriously cheap fashion giant H&M has taken up greenwashing as a tactic to seem more sustainable and eco-friendly. They launched their Conscious Collection in 2012.
This is the description posted on H&M’s website: “Our Conscious products are created with a little extra consideration for the planet: at least 50% of each piece is made from more sustainable materials, like organic cotton or recycled polyester. The only exception is recycled cotton, which for quality reasons, can only make up 20% of a product.”
In addition, they have in-store recycle bins where customers can drop off their old clothes and get a coupon to redeem the next time they’re in the store. As great as this seems, it’s important to note that, according to The Economist, only 25% of clothes that are intended to be recycled globally actually end up in sorting plants. Of the clothes sent to H&M’s sorter of choice, I:Collect — the company that handles the donations for H&M — says that only 35% of what’s collected is recycled at all.
So what is H&M really doing to help the environment, or curb the fast fashion epidemic that it so earnestly contributes to? Evidently, not a whole lot.
My Personal Experience With Greenwashing
Businesses use greenwashing to make more money, plain and simple. Some use it to sell more of a certain product, and others use it to build trust and rapport with their customers, who in turn buy more from them. I already gave some examples above of well-known companies using greenwashing tactics to promote certain products. As it turns out, local stores also participate in this phenomenon.
I saw this first hand at a job I used to have working the deli counter at a hometown co-op grocery store. We had two kinds of packaging for food coming from the deli – plastic containers, and compostable “eco-friendly” cardboard takeout containers. Because of some government regulation, there were very few alternatives to the plastic containers, but we aided this problem by having every trash can in the store separated into trash, recyclable, and compostable.
Here’s the kicker, though: all three sections still got thrown straight into the dumpster. The co-op did not have the personnel to sort through and wash out everything that was going to be recycled or composted and was unwilling to hire anyone to do so. More personnel = more money coming out of potential profit.
Essentially the only reason we had the three sections was to make customers believe we were acting responsibly. I specifically asked why we didn’t just combine them all into one, to be more honest and make it easier to discard, and I was told it was because they didn’t want angry customers. Even though I think people would be madder to find out they were being lied to!
In the end, this experience of mine captures the entire essence of what greenwashing is all about – convincing consumers that by purchasing a specific product or brand, they are acting responsibly and in the best interest of the planet.
The Big, Bigger, and Biggest Problems With Greenwashing
Greenwashing is a far bigger problem than falsely labeling a product as “eco-friendly” or “green.” Buried under its deceptive marketing and distorted claims is a much more fundamental issue: the ongoing placement of responsibility for the concern towards our environment on the consumer, rather than corporations or the establishment.
Now, before you get up in arms about that statement, know that I do not believe consumers are or should be absolved of all accountability. We, the consumers, certainly influence the market with our purchasing and lifestyle decisions. If a collective effort was made to stop buying products that harm the environment, businesses would have no choice but to change their practices. Unfortunately, such a movement is highly unlikely, and more so simply not feasible.
The current state of polarized opinions on the deterioration of our environment is one reason consumers will never band together to influence the market. The continued politicization of science-based evidence that climate change is indeed happening, and happening at a rapid pace, means that those affiliated with one political party vs the other are more inclined to disregard pertinent information.
Additionally, by way of actions, words, and policy, both political parties have prioritized the economy over the environment. Until political leadership unifies in condemning destructive business and manufacturing practices, consumers will continue to purchase whatever products they please – marketed as environmentally friendly or not.
So, because it is highly unlikely that consumers will make a collective effort to force businesses to change their sustainability practices, that leaves the only practical onus to be on businesses.
If we expect any meaningful reduction in over-consumption of ecologically harmful commodities and services, meaning less waste created in both production processes and end products, it must come from the top. It must come from big companies. They are the ones with the money and power.
The real telling point is that brands usually only have just one eco-conscious line of products, but never actually eliminate products that aren’t eco-conscious or sustainable. Why, if companies are supposedly dedicated to creating more sustainable processes and products, aren’t they replacing unsustainable products with sustainable ones, instead of just adding extra alternatives? I see two possible explanations, and in the case of many businesses, it’s probably a combination of the two.
- Companies want to appeal to eco-conscious consumers who want an option they can feel good about spending money on because it is better for the planet (whether it actually is better or not).
- Companies do not want to cut into their bottom line for the sake of the environment. They know what would need to be done to improve their product or processes, but don’t see the value in jumping through all the hoops to get there. Money is more important.
So, they slap a few buzz-word labels on their products because it’s a lot easier than actually becoming an environmentally friendly company.
All of this theoretical talk is fine and dandy, but it’s simply missing the biggest point at hand regarding greenwashing.
The best way to be more sustainable and eco-friendly is to stop buying things at the level we currently do in the first place – just buy less stuff.
Let’s stop and think about that for a minute – this concept of buying less stuff.
Buying less stuff is not just about you, the consumer, having fewer material items at home to use and discard. When we zoom out and look at the bigger picture, there is much more to put a stop to than just throwing out less of the end products that consumers buy.
The harvesting of raw materials. Processing these materials into refined products. Transporting raw and refined materials to their intermediary and end destinations. The packaging of the final product. The harvesting and refining of raw materials for the packaging. All of the gas and emissions produced in the process – including you driving to the store to purchase it.
When we consume less, all of these implicit expenditures lessen as well. You don’t see any eco-friendly labels touting that they’ve sold less product in order to reduce manufacturing and emission waste, do you? That’s because since there is still a product to be sold, all of these wastes are still happening. It’s simply not a realistic way to conduct business and still be profitable.
Watch this commercial titled “The Life Of A Strawberry” for an easy visual representation of what we’re talking about here.
This is where the real trickery is being accomplished by big corporations. Greenwashing is the best way for businesses to convince us that we need to buy their products to help save the planet. Even companies who take sustainability seriously and truly do take all measures to be as eco-conscious as possible – are still there to make money. And to make money, they must sell their products.
In this sense, greenwashing is a much bigger deception than any of us realize on the surface. Yes, companies may lie by saying a certain item is more eco-friendly than it really is. But, they have to do this to keep us interested in their products. To keep believing their lies that in order to live a life as full of comfort and convenience as we would like, we must continue buying products that make this possible. No matter the cost to the environment – and there is a cost to the environment (as long as they are making stuff). They just want you to believe it’s less than it could be.
Corporations know that if we truly figure out how to become more sustainable (aka, buying and consuming less), that the structure they are built on – ever-increasing production for ever-growing markets and higher margins from deceptive advertising – will come tumbling down.