Great news! These days, an increasing number of consumer products are labelled as being ‘eco-friendly’, ‘conscious’, and most of all ‘sustainable’. Seems like humanity is finally living on the terms of the planet, eh? The only problem: these labels often mean absolutely nothing. When it comes to the truth about the eco-friendliness of the product inside that green cardboard, your guess is as good as mine. Why? Because the consumer market is plagued by greenwashing.
There are many definitions of greenwashing, but one that sums it up best is CorpWatch’s assertion that it is “the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets by posing as friends of the environment and leaders in the struggle to eradicate poverty.” The advantage of this definition is its emphasis on the profitability of greenwashing. It hits the nail on the head in explaining why greenwashing might feel difficult to spot: it is explicitly meant to mislead in order to be beneficial for business. Greenwashing is no miscommunication – it is a professionally designed marketing plot that draws on the increasing will of consumers to take action for the planet. Why? Because consumers really do care – according to a recent study of US consumer behavior, between 2013-2018 products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than those that were not.
However, this leads to another, more subtle reason this manipulation might go unnoticed: we want to believe in it. Of course we do. Who would not want to feel empowered to make a difference by updating our shopping cart? However, it is a sad reality that oftentimes choosing the “eco-friendly” product actually does next to nothing meaningful for the needs of the environment, and the overuse is reducing “sustainability” to nothing but a buzzword.
So, what is there to do? The actual sustainability record of any corporation is difficult to study and will always be up for some debate. There is no ‘quick and easy’ guide to true sustainable consumption, but here are three key steps to help you on your way:
1) Know what ‘sustainable’ is supposed to mean
Do your research. To assess the sustainability of any given product, it is crucial to know the greatest environmental hazards created by that industry. Know what needs to be reformed for meaningful change and find out if the company is addressing the problems.
2) Do not give products the benefit of the doubt
In the words of Fashion Revolution founder Carry Somers, ‘there is no beauty without truth and there is no truth without transparency.’ Essentially, if you cannot be certain of the legitimacy of the sustainability claims, do not believe them. Transparency is an absolute core value of environmentalism and the only real source of empowerment for the consumer. Expect companies to disclose information about how, where, by whom, and with what impact their products are made and look for regulations and seals that hold them accountable to fulfill their promises.
3) Push for real change
Do not be passive and settle for what is already available, but actively pressure companies and businesses to do more by organizing and participating in campaigns such as ‘Who made my clothes?’ by Fashion Revolution. The numbers clearly show that sustainability is legitimately an increasingly important value guiding consumer decisions, so rather than letting businesses to use it as a marketing ploy let’s mobilize to pressure them to implement real reforms.
Being aware of greenwashing does not have to be an arduous task. In many cases, establishing just a few rules of thumb will get you a long way, at least when it comes to the most elementary forms of misleading. Don’t let the seeming difficulty of spotting greenwashing be an excuse to not be a critical consumer.
Header image: Photo by Will Cornfield on Unsplash
1) CorpWatch (2001). Greenwash Fact Sheet. Available at: https://corpwatch.org/article/greenwash-fact-sheet
2) Watson, Bruce (2016). The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies
3) Whelan, Tensie and Randi Kronthal-Sacco (2019). Research: Actually, Consumers Do Buy Sustainable Products. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-actually-consumers-do-buy-sustainable-products
4) Fashion Revolution. Why Transparency Matters. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/transparency/
5) Fashion Revolution. Take Action. https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/get-involved/