Greenwashing: The Subtle Art of Deception
When you see a brand you love stepping up and publicly embracing sustainability, you may celebrate at first. But then, a sense of doubt or trepidation sets in as you wonder whether these commitments to environmentally-friendly practices are actually genuine or whether you’re just another victim of greenwashing. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Conversations surrounding sustainability and climate can be a minefield. Often, the language used by major brands and corporations is deliberately ambiguous, making it difficult for the average consumer to navigate and find the truth. Greenwashing is purposeful deception that aims to lull us into a false sense of security so that we continue supporting these brands and feel good doing it.
Well, the game’s up. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware and wary of greenwashing and have started to hold brands to account. The only problem? Greenwashing isn’t always obvious. In fact, nowadays it’s subtle and couched in "sustainable" language that lends a certain legitimacy.
So how on earth are we meant to recognize, let alone react to greenwashing?
What Is Greenwashing?
"Greenwashing" is thrown around a lot these days, but what does it actually mean? Also known as the "green sheen", greenwashing refers to a distraction tactic employed by companies, brands, and corporations in their promotions, marketing, and public messaging. It is the co-opting of the marketability of sustainability without actually putting your money where your mouth is.
When a brand greenwashes, they are deliberately creating a facade of corporate environmental responsibility to appeal to sustainability-conscious consumers, when in reality, they are not actually that climate friendly. Whilst greenwashing doesn’t necessarily point to an outright lie, it often represents only a portion of the truth or substantial twisting of the truth to disguise ongoing damaging practices.
The Evolution of Greenwashing
"Greenwashing" was first coined in 1986 by a prominent environmental advocate, Jay Westerveld. He conceptualized the term with specific reference to sustainability in a Fiji resort, where he noted an uncomfortable disjuncture between the hotels environmental policies and business endeavors. Whilst imploring its guests to pick up their towels in a bid to protect their oceans and reefs, the resort was simultaneously expanding its premises and building new accommodation with no apparent thought for the kind of devastation this could cause for the surroundings. Seems a little hypocritical, doesn’t it?
The most shocking thing, perhaps, is just how long greenwashing has been around and the fact that it’s just now enjoying a renaissance.
In fact, for obvious reasons, greenwashing has become an appealing and powerful marketing tool in recent years. As sustainability and environmentalism have become increasingly mainstream, so too have consumer habits. To keep themselves current and respond to societal pressure, corporations have jumped on the trend, purporting to center sustainability in all that they do.
Why Is Greenwashing Dangerous?
Greenwashing is toxic for two main reasons. Firstly, it lets big corporations get away with simply paying lip service to wider climate conversations whilst continuing with their damaging practices. This means that whilst outwardly there appears to have been a positive shift, in reality, nothing has changed. Secondly, it deceives consumers into endorsing this behavior under the pretense that it’s genuine.
As we mentioned before, often you’ll find greenwashing expressed through sustainable language that offers a level of legitimacy but actually means nothing. You’ll see buzzwords such as ‘eco-conscious, ‘environmentally friendly’, and ‘sustainable’ being used superficially, with no substantiation as to what they mean on the ground. And that’s the problem, the lack of industry-standard which regulates what sustainable practices should look like means corporations can conjure up their own definitions and bend the parameters to suit themselves and maximize their profit.
How To Spot Greenwashing + What To Do About It
It can be hard to spot greenwashing, that’s the whole point. Not only are those behind it good at covering their tracks, but it’s also about our own consciences. Of course, we want to be convinced. We want to believe and give our favorite brands the benefit of the doubt.
ACCEPT THE FACT THAT AS A CONSUMER, WHILST YOU CAN DO YOUR BEST TO CALL OUT GREENWASHING, THE ONUS IS NOT COMPLETELY ON YOU
Whilst holding brands to account for their misrepresentations and deception is honorable, it is also not your responsibility as a consumer. If you have the time and energy to dedicate, this is a worthy use of your time. On the other hand, simply doing your best to put your money where your mouth is really is enough.
LOOK AT WHAT A COMPANY CONSIDERS TO BE SUSTAINABLE
Just because brands use the word "sustainable" doesn’t mean they are. If you find an ad to be overly ambiguous or vague, that’s a red flag. Don’t take words at face value. Reach out to the brand and ask them to explain their specific understanding and implementation of sustainable practices. You may well find that they’ve used the word for effect, but have nothing to show for it.
Luckily for you, here at Consciously we’ve done the hard work for you. You can shop Consciously with the peace of mind you’ve been looking for and deserve. We don’t accept any of that fluffy, evasive language from any of our brands. We only stock brands that we have verified as being true to their word. Our eight core values and sustainability criteria help us accredit sustainability claims and ensure that each and every one of our partners are on the same page as us.
DO YOUR RESEARCH AND LOOK FOR THE PROOF
Go beyond the tag-lines and the big claims. Look for evidence that substantiates their public messaging. This could take the form of stats and figures on their website, or published reports regarding their progress. If this kind of information is not readily available, reach out to the company and hold them accountable. Ask them to share their data with you. If they’re standing by their word, they should be open to these kinds of conversations.
FOLLOW THE SUPPLY CHAIN
Just because a brand uses natural fabrics doesn’t mean they’re actually more sustainable. Ensure to look for sustainably-sourced fabrics; whilst the material itself could be sustainable, the way it has been grown and produced may not be.
Brands that are genuinely committed to sustainable practices will normally have an open and transparent approach to their supply chain, and won’t have a problem sharing this with you.
PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
As consumers, our biggest power is where we choose to shop and which businesses we choose to support with our dollars. If you discover a case of greenwashing, make your stance known and divest from that brand. Leverage your power and choose to invest in brands and companies that are genuinely doing good.
CELEBRATE THE VICTORIES
In a context of cancel-culture and calling bad behavior out publicly, we can forget to celebrate those that are doing good. Whilst exposing greenwashing is important and is often an effective way of holding those responsible to account, publicizing companies who are actually standing up to their word is a good way to balance the conversation and inject some positivity.
Plus, don’t forget that sustainability is a journey. Brands that are doing their best may genuinely be learning as they go. Rewarding them for doing good by the planet is a great way to ensure they continue.