What is greenwashing—and how do you avoid it?

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Going green is good for business. Consumers are often willing to pay more for eco-friendly products than other comparable products on the market, according to market research

But not all environmental claims are created equally. “Greenwashing” is a form of misinformation often used to entice an aspiring green consumer. Companies promising to be sustainable, biodegradable, or environmentally conscious sometimes fail to meet the promises they make to consumers. 

“It’s basically just a form of lying,” says Ellis Jones, a sociologist who studies greenwashing at the College of the Holy Cross. 

As millions of Americans prepare to spend billions of dollars on Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, greenwashing experts provides tips for consumers who want to spend their money with businesses they trust. 

What does greenwashing look like?  

Greenwashing can be as obvious as an outright falsehood or as murky as a stretched truth. 

In the U.S., the Federal Trade Commission regulates green advertising at the federal level, and has been filing suits companies who violate their environmental marketing guidelines since 1992. In recent years, the agency has filed lawsuits against Walmart and Kohl’s for marketing rayon textiles as environmentally friendly bamboo, and Volkswagen for lying about their cars’ fuel efficiency

Other instances of greenwashing are harder to discern. Take carbon offsets, for example. To negate their own emissions, some companies send money to programs like tree planting projects that theoretically offset carbon pumped into the atmosphere by planting more trees to suck it up. But drought and wildfires have destroyed some of these forests, and critics say offsets give companies permission to continue polluting. 

Greenwashing is particularly common in the fashion industry, says Maxine Bédat, director of The New Standard Institute, a think tank focused on improving the industry’s social and environmental standards. Being sustainable is the latest trend, she says, and a way for the industry to attract consumers. 

“It is super prevalent. I think we’re at the apex of greenwashing in the industry,” she says. 

Another way retailers mislead consumers is by distracting them from a company’s larger issues, says Bédat. 

For example, a large retailer might roll out a new line of products, such as jeans, that uses less water and therefore theoretically has less of an environmental impact than the other clothes the company sells. 

“You think ‘oh that sounds great,’” she says. “You think that’s good news because it means it’s a good company overall.” 

But that same company might ignore water usage in the rest of their products lines, all while doing nothing to address the other ways that their production might be harming the environment. 

Is it possible to inoculate people against greenwashing?

“Consumer demand for sustainability is almost insatiable,” says Jones. “It’s good news. It means many consumers are wanting to do the right thing. The problem is they can’t always tell what the right thing is.”

But learning about greenwashing and how it works is one effective way for consumers to avoid giving their money to companies making false claims, according to research from consulting firm, The Behavior Insights Team. 

In a recent study, the researchers investigated whether it was possible to inoculate people against greenwashing. Dividing participants into three groups, one group was given information on greenwashing, the second was asked to create their own version of greenwashing, and the last group didn’t receive any information on greenwashing. 

The groups then viewed two “green” ads for fictional energy companies. One ad promoted the company’s green office spaces, distracting from the emissions it created by burning fossil fuels. And the other ad promoted a carbon footprint calculator individuals could use to determine their personal energy use, pushing environmental responsibility onto the consumer. 

The ads were effective among the group that had been given no information on greenwashing— 57 percent of them believed the energy companies were doing right by the environment. What’s more, consumers who said they were the most concerned about the environment were the most likely to fall for the green marketing. 

By contrast, the participants who received information on greenwashing ahead of time were more likely to be skeptical that the study’s fictitious energy companies did in fact benefit the environment. 

What can you do?

As more companies look to cash in on sustainable marketing, governments are beginning to take more action to protect consumers. 

Since 2015, the FTC has taken action against 21 companies in the U.S. for using misleading environmental marketing. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently proposed two new regulations to regulate greenwashing in investment banking. And in New York, a proposed bill called The Fashion Act would require fashion companies operating in the state to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement. 

A new law brought forth by members of the European Union would more strictly regulate environmental claims and sustainability labels slapped on products sold in Europe. 

In the meantime, experts have tips for how consumers can spot potential greenwashing.

“You see a lot of products that use words like “sustainable,”’and “better for the planet” with pictures that make it look like it’s green,” says Todd Larsen, the executive co-director of consumer and corporate engagement at Green America, a nonprofit aimed at helping consumers navigate greenwashing. 

He recommends looking for descriptions that outline specifically how a product is green.

“Is it truly organic or does it use vague words like ‘natural?’” he says.

While not foolproof, certifications granted by credible third parties like USDA Organic, B Corp Certification, and Fair Trade can give consumers confidence in a product’s green claims. 

Green America has a database of businesses it certifies as environmentally and socially responsible, and Jones regularly publishes The Better World Shopping Guide in print and as a smartphone app

Jones says consumers should also look out for what he calls the “green halo effect” of companies donating to environmental causes without changing how they do business. 

“People should watch out for philanthropy,” says Jones. “When [companies are] just focusing on donations, they’re just trying to distract from what they’re doing.”  

Another tip he offers is to shop small. 

“When in doubt, go smaller, local, and independent,” says Jones.

When it comes to fashion, Bérdat says to rethink shopping habits. After all, buying a new sweater labeled “carbon neutral” still produces more carbon than wearing a sweater already in your closet.

She notes, “The most sustainable thing you can do as a consumer is wear the things you have more.”

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