We all have our own internal moral compasses and for many of us, this will influence – at least in part – the decisions we make as consumers. It might be that you’re trying to shop more sustainably and aim for a more sustainable wardrobe (if this is of interest, we’d recommend checking out this useful article). It might be that you’ve been avoiding products from a certain food producer since you heard about their aggressive sales techniques of baby formula in poverty-stricken parts of Africa dating back to the 1970s. Or perhaps you boycott a certain British tabloid newspaper in the wake of their fabricated, sensationalist coverage of a tragic loss of life at a football stadium disaster in the late 80s. Bringing things bang up to date, you may choose not to keep your accounts with a bank that lends to fossil fuel companies or to regimes in countries with poor human rights records.
Regardless of how much or how little factors like this influence your decisions as a consumer, the fact is that advertisers know well that consumers favour brands who side with them ideologically and, with this in mind, brands know that it’s good for them to get on board with good causes. To care. Or, at least, to appear to care.
We can question the motives of brands all we want, but, in the past, it could be argued that in many cases, the motives didn’t actually matter so much provided the brands followed through on their commitments: it’s not really important if a company’s board genuinely believes in the work that a charity they might support does, provided that company still makes their agreed donations to that charity.However, when it comes to the climate crisis, and the ‘Greenwashing’ of products, the picture muddies somewhat.
Put simply, ‘Greenwashing’ is a catch all term for companies marketing their products as being more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
Environmental awareness is entering mainstream conversations and brands are, understandably, keen to tout their environmental credentials, whether that’s a fast food chain ceasing to use plastic drinking straws or manufacturers starting to introduce recycled material into their products and packaging. Many manufacturers are also striving for both carbon and plastic neutrality too. On the surface this all sounds great and, once again, in principle, the company board does not necessarily have to believe in what they are doing here provided they actually do it. However, look a little bit deeper and it is not so straight forward.
The issue is that many of these claims require the brands to actually do something directly themselves and, when scrutinised, the claims simply do not add up. We’re not for a moment trying to suggest that brands are lying about what they are doing or that their claims are outright fabricated, but it is true that many brands are Greenwashing their products and perhaps being dishonest or withholding about the full reality of their environmental credentials.
ID: A close up of a number of plat based groceries in a reusable bag. Matt is holding a block of Tempeh in his left hand. The background is out of focus as he stands in the kitchen.
Greenwashing can take several forms. In rapid fire, here are a couple of key areas to watch out for:
Vague messaging– touting a product as ‘eco-friendly’ without any further information. This can be more subtle too – green or nature themed packaging for instance can lead consumers to think a product has better eco credentials then it actually does. This category can also include baseless claims on the part of the company. For many of the brands we choose to buy from, their ethics are really clearly stipulated, either on their website of packaging with claims that can be checked out and easily backed up.
Selective messaging– where certain genuine eco friendly aspects of a product are amplified to mask less eco friendly aspects. Eg. A product may contain a certain proportion of recycled material, but if the rest is coming from an unsustainable source or there are highly carbon intensive aspects to the production of the product, then these eclipse the good of the recycled content.
As consumers, it is difficult to navigate the waters with environmental messaging. There are plenty of companies out there who are genuinely trying to make a difference with their products, but how can you tell what is the best choice? For a major purchase – let’s say a new car – the process is something that we can justify researching: we can research the relative merits of internal combustion vs. mild hybrid vs. plugin hybrid vs. fully electric engines. However, there are certain situations – like staring at the cold drinks fridge in a shop – where extensive background research is not practical.
Fortunately, there are ways forward. ‘B Corporation’ certification is an independently audited environment accreditation scheme companies can sign up to and we can look for this logo – just as you might with the Fairtrade logo or various Organic Certification logos – on all kinds of products. Consumer rights groups have also started successfully taking companies to court over false environmental claims in their advertising. We can hope that as time goes by, legislation will catch up with reality and the burden of proof required for environmental claims will be added to advertising standards laws rather than just on the already burdened shoulders of public and activists.
Greenwashing is, sadly, far from a unique phenomenon. As we find ourselves in Pride Month, it’s well worth bearing in mind that many brands who outwardly support Pride events also, on the other hand, support activity that directly discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community. From sportswear brands sponsoring events in countries that criminalise the LGBTQ+ population to pharmaceutical multinationals who’s aggressive pricing and failure to release patents on treatments developed with taxpayer money means that HIV prevention medication is beyond the financial reach of many of the people in the LGBTQ+ community most at risk from the virus.
ID: A portrait image. Fay sits on the floor, behind Fay is a mid century furniture, with computer on top and pictures on the wall. Fay is wearing a Lucy & Yak boiler suit in bright pattern. In Fay’s hands are a Lucy and Yak jumper, and Fay is reading the label which goes into detail about their sustainable manufacturing process and biodegradable packaging.
Similarly, there was an outpouring of corporate support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. This was accompanied by numerous pledges to increase diversity and to amplify minority voices. A year later, many of those promises have remained unfulfilled.
Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware – is a phrase that many of us will be familiar with. However, now, more than ever, this phrase has taken on a new and urgent layer of meaning. As social awareness becomes a common marketing strategy for many brands, whilst there are many companies out there genuinely who’s claims hold up, there sadly are more who shift the focus onto individual responsibility rather than corporate responsibility. The concept that it is entirely up to the individual is greenwashing in its simplest form and is a tool that is and has been used too much. As consumers, we have to become wiser to the claims being made by the companies we buy from, and ask the question ‘sustainable for who?’ We have to keep calling brands out who make pledges that don’t stand up. Public opinion matters.
ID: A landscape image. Matt cleans cooker in the kitchen and is using Method cleaning spray. We love Method as their claims are easy to find and back up about their sustainable products. The product is pink, he holds a blue both and is wearing a white t-shirt with print and black trousers.