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Greenwashing: How to outsmart companies and their sustainability traps

You may have heard of 'greenwashing' - it's a word that pops up frequently in the world of sustainability these days - but why do companies do it? And what can we do about it?

In this blog, Rhiannon Barriball gives us the ins and outs of the term and some useful tips to help you shop sustainably with your eyes wide open and avoid deceitful advertising as more and more companies try to jump aboard the sustainable band-wagon.

What is Greenwashing?

If you’re not familiar with the term, Business News Daily define greenwashing as:


"When a company or organization spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimizing their environmental impact."


Essentially, it is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

'Greenwashing' was coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986 and initially used to describe the adoption of a reusable towel service at a beach resort in Samoa that was being marketed as eco-friendly, while the resort continued its expansion, further destroying local ecosystems.


Since then, the consumer and capital markets for green products, services, and firms have expanded rapidly in the last decade. The consumer market for green products and services was estimated at $230 billion in 2009 and was predicted to grow to $845 billion by 2015. Unfortunately, this has led to a rise in greenwashing in almost every industry with some of the most prominent being energy, fashion and food.


Why do companies greenwash?

Ever wondered why companies greenwash their customers? Money. To put it bluntly, sustainability sells.

With the rise in awareness of climate change, becoming more sustainable has become the latest trend, something to show off about and be proud of.


According to a 2015 survey, 66% of global consumers said they would be willing to pay more for ‘sustainable’ products – among millennials, this number jumps even higher, to a staggering 72%. This has resulted in companies exploiting their new customer base and profiting from it.

On top of this, there is also an increasing pressure from the public and governments for large corporations to reduce their environmental impact, particularly their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

So, to fall in line without actually doing any of the dirty work, companies often change their packaging to include key colours and buzz words associated with sustainability, such as green and ‘eco’, even if there is very little about the product which is actually environmentally friendly.


If there are two very similar products, but one is marketed as ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’, then why wouldn’t you pick the seemingly ‘better’ option? It seems so simple, but it rarely is.

What to look for and how to avoid Greenwashing:

Admittedly, it is very easy to fall for greenwashing, I definitely have in the past and probably will again in the future, like most people. However, there are a few ways we can try to prevent this and ensure we are buying from companies that have a genuine interest in sustainable production and consumption.


1) Research

This is probably the most important step when trying to avoid greenwashing.

Genuine organisations will prove how they are minimising their environmental impact, they will have this information readily available on their website.

So, next time you’re shopping online, have a look, can you find any information on their sustainability efforts? The materials used? Their carbon footprint? If not, it is unlikely that they are very sustainable.

2) Shop around

More often than not, more than one company will sell the same product.

Don’t just pick up the first thing you see because it looks sustainable. See if other companies offer the same thing and weigh up the ethics of the organisation.

3) Utilise resources

There are some great resources out there that have done the hard work for you. Apps such as Good On You rank fashion companies on their ethical and sustainability efforts. Have a search and if your favourite shop ranks as one star, perhaps it's time to shop somewhere new.

4) Don’t be fooled by colours or buzz words

It might look pretty and catch your eye, but just because it's labelled as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘vegan’, doesn’t automatically mean it's good! Where has the product come from? What are the other ingredients? What makes it sustainable?

Where does this leave us?

Sustainability is a very complex topic and it isn’t always black and white. A lot of companies are making a conscious effort to be better and become more sustainable, but we do need to do our research and be wary about what we buy and where we buy it from. We have to recognize the impacts our consumer habits have on other people, our planet, and the animals we share it with.


Rhiannon is a clean energy specialist at Good Energy with an MSc in Sustainability, having researched internationally and collaborated with various environmental NGOs. She is passionate about the environment, sustainability, international development and global equality. You can find her on Instagram @rhiannonbarriball and LinkedIn here.

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