What is greenwashing and how to avoid it. Method #4 will shock you!

With today’s understanding of what our actions are having on the environment, it has become abundantly clear that sustainable practices and consumer behaviour must change for our future quality of life and the survival of the planet. Many people are making conscious choices in their day to day lives to reduce their impact on the environment. The internet has also made this a lot easier to find new ideas and solutions to help with our journey, with any information we want just a click away. 

Large businesses are using this to their advantage to sell their products by using what we value and trust against us, our desire for a more sustainable future and trust in well-known brands. Some companies are ethical and put in time and resources to create services and products that are eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical that provide real value to their consumers. Unfortunately, other companies employ dishonest advertising, known as corporate greenwashing, by advertising that their company and its products or services are “green”, “sustainable” and “ethical” when in reality it’s a misleading statement and often completely untrue.

Through half-truths, white lies and selective information, companies that use greenwashing techniques have found a lucrative way to adapt to the growing ethical and environmentally conscious climate to make a lot of money, without actually spending resources or time to make their products and services any more beneficial for the environment.

Even though it is a dishonest and unethical practice, greenwashing has become widely accepted as a great marketing strategy and after you have finished this article, if you don’t already, you will start seeing it regularly in your everyday lives through social media, advertising and even in some companies that you currently trust.

Why is Greenwashing Important?

We believe it is important to know when a company is attempting to greenwash us because getting tricked into buying these kind of products makes us part of the problem, when we are all trying to be part of the solution. There is nothing worse buying a product or service thinking you are doing good for the environment and society only to later find out you have been duped into contributing to the exact problem you thought you were helping.  That’s why in this article we will cover the common ways companies try to greenwash you and how to spot it.

We will now will expose the common greenwashing methods that companies try to scam us with.

Number 1 is obvious, but it has to be said.

1 – Claiming something is biodegradable while hiding the fact that it takes many years, sometimes centuries, to breakdown.  

A classic example of this is “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics. In the last decade many new plastics have popped up that make claims to be biodegradable and compostable, however companies intentionally hide the unfortunate truth that a lot of these plastics will not actually biodegrade under normal conditions and if they do it can take hundreds of years. 

One of these plastics, PLA, is “technically” biodegradable because it can decompose however it requires the right conditions to do so. In normal environmental conditions PLA can take hundreds of years to biodegrade. For PLA to degrade faster, the plastic needs a high temperature environment (around 60oC) and a rich variety of suitable micro-organisms which is generally only found in industrial facilities specifically designed to digest the plastic and not your common backyard compost heap. 

There are many other plastics like this and many companies misleading us into believing the plastic will biodegrade in a few months or years and we have nothing to be concerned about.

Only trust companies that have their plastic certified under Australian (AS 4736), European (EN 13432) or US (ASTM D6400) standards and make sure that the certification clearly states it the plastic is certified home compostable.  Some companies will go as far to get certification, but it is only compostable in an industrial facility and not home compostable. This doesn’t stop them using it as a marketing ploy to sell their products and make misleading claims.

2 – Highlighting that a product has “green”, “organic” or “natural” ingredients but failing to mention the product contains microplastics, hormone disruptors and carcinogens.

This is one the beauty industry thrives on and it is used all the time especially amongst the really big “trusted” brands.  Whether it be in skincare, makeup to hair products, it doesn’t come to a surprise that the beauty industry uses plenty of green buzzwords to lure customers into purchasing a product that is harmful to the environment.

Using words such as “plant based” or “contains natural ingredients” many companies lead customers into believing the ingredients aren’t composed of bad chemicals, when in reality many have a wide range of chemicals, often bad for your health and the environment.  Some include:

  • Microplastics such as polyethylene, nylon, polymethyl methacrylate
  • Hormone disruptors such as propylparaben (hormone disruptor)
  • Chemicals that increase risk of cancer, such as retinyl palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate) which makes the skin more sensitive to sun and increases risk of skin cancer.
  • “Fragrances” – these can sometimes be hormone disruptors but companies don’t disclose the actual chemical to their customers.
  • etc.

The best way to avoid being caught out by this deceptive language is to look at the ingredients on the product then doing a google search to find out what it is. Some products that can contain microplastics include lipstick, foundation, highlighters and mascara.

3 – Down playing down the environmental hazards their product creates.

This is often a bit more of an obvious one to pick up on but sometimes companies can be subtler.  An obvious one to spot are statements such as “clean coal” - there is no such thing as coal that doesn’t create pollution.

A more obscure example however is from products that use a common material known as microfibers that is often used in wipes and towels. This is often marketed as “sustainable” and in line with the companies “environmentally conscious commitments” because they’re present in reusable products, but in reality, microfibers are made from 100% plastic which is often a mixture of polyester and nylon and these break down into microplastics.

When washed, these microfibers break down into microplastics in the environment (very small plastic particles).  Many companies that sell products with microfibers know this and since its not something they can outright deny many will admit their products produce microplastics but downplay the adverse effects.  “Because only a small amount breaks off and enters the environment” it’s "not that bad". Considering more than 30% of all microplastic in the environment was created from polyesters, nylon and acrylics found in synthetic fabric (i.e. clothes and wipes), when using these on a large scale “small” amounts of microplastics add up.  The attitude of “its only a small amount per cloth or per person” is how we got to this point of having vast amounts of microplastics in our environment.

In the last decade, scientists are finding an abundance of microplastics in fish, animals and even within human organs.  This is having a wide range of adverse health effects, with scientists in the last few years finding the presents of microplastics causing hormone imbalances in both men and women to a point that newborn boys’ penises are getting smaller each decade. Males testosterone levels have also significantly declined from an average of 600 ng/dL in 1999 to 450 ng/dL in 2016 (25% decrease in under 20 years). Microplastics and chemicals in our environment are damaging our reproductive systems and hormones and it’s only going to get worse. 

4 – Misleading claims regarding donations to green causes and charities

This greenwashing façade will shock you, especially since it is not illegal.

An example of is when some companies claim they are donating a percentage of their profits to a specific cause or charity, but manipulate their figures so that minimal or next to no funds actually reach the causes they claim to support.

One way some companies do this is by claiming that 50% or 100% of their profits go to charity or a cause, but in fine print make sure to state that its of their “net” profits not “gross” that go to charity.  The importance of distinguishing net and gross profit is that gross profit is based on how much money is left over after you have paid for the cost of the product you are selling, whereas net profit is the money you have left over after paying all other expenses, including the wages to the owner of the business.

Net profit can be manipulated simply by the business owners listing themselves as an employee of the business, paying themselves a higher salary then going on to pay the charity the “net profit”, which is now next to nothing. As far as customers and the law is concerned, the company gave 100% of your net profit to charity as promise.  As far as ethics are concerned, its very misleading and capitalising on consumers trust simply to make easy money.  Greedy business owners who scam us like this get to enjoy all the riches from increased revenue, without actually having to give much of that money to charity.

This is difficult to spot and the only way to know for certain a company is being honest about this is if they are transparent about the actual dollar value that they paid to the cause or charity and how much they paid themselves as business owners. If a company states what the total net profit the business was and/or how much the business owners received as a salary, they’re obviously trustworthy because they’re being transparent about their finances and have nothing to hide.  If they are unable to state any figures like this then all you have to go by is their word. That said, if the company is not activity showing the value of funds their giving to these causes and charities, why aren’t they?  Wouldn’t it be something they’re proud of and want to announce to their customers?

These are just a handful of examples that greenwashing takes place in society and hope we have helped you become a little more aware at how seemingly “honest” businesses are often playing a very dirty game with almost no consequences.  We believe being aware of these tactics can help us be more responsible consumers.  If you would like to learn more or keep up to date with the latest news and information please join our mailing list.

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