What Is Greenwashing? Examples In Action And What You Can Do
By Hugo Douglas-Deane
You may have heard the term 'greenwashing' recently.
The concept itself is becoming more and more widespread and companies are being called out publicly – and it's even being written into UK law.
In fact, there’s a whole variety of new terms being coined around the way green claims are being made both in the UK and elsewhere.
While confusion about terms is making things difficult for regular consumers, it’s clear that the fact claims are becoming more widespread means there’s more pressure than ever on companies and organisations to explain their actions and policies when it comes to sustainability and climate change.
OK. Pre-amble aside, let’s get into a quick explainer on the term greenwashing before covering some examples and a few points to help you take action when you encounter greenwashing in the wild.
What is greenwashing?
Put simply, greenwashing is when a business makes itself or its products out to be greener than they actually are.
If a business makes any claim about being sustainable or ethical that misleads, hides or misrepresents the truth they are greenwashing.
– UK Competition and Markets Authority
As the effects of climate change become more noticeable and widespread, we're beginning to see more people really understand the importance of sustainability and take that into account when they shop and go about their day to day lives.
In fact, 57% of consumers globally are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. (IBM, 2020)
Naturally, businesses have noticed this, and are responding by trying to convince customers they're sustainable.
Examples of greenwashing
The fast fashion giant promotes its clothing return and recycle scheme while still being one of the biggest culprits of a fast fashion business model.
While it seems like a great step forward, consumer advice platforms like Good On You consider it a drop in the ocean compared to the 3 BILLION garments H&M makes every year.
What’s more, in late 2022 H&M has also had a lawsuit filed against it in New York, after a shopper claimed its ‘Conscious Collection’ was falsely claiming green credentials when the reality is quite the opposite. Earlier in 2022 Quartz published a report that found H&M showed environmental scorecards for its clothing that were misleading and in the most egregious cases, the exact opposite of reality.
McDonalds switched to paper straws which they described as ‘eco-friendly’. While this could be seen as a step forward – as moving from fossil-fuel derived plastic to paper is a good start – things weren't quite as they seemed.
The original plastic straws were recyclable. Many customers found that the new straws weren't in fact recyclable, and without any available composting options at McDonald’s restaurants, the straws would have to go to landfill.
Removing plastic is an important step in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, preventing ocean waste, and reducing the microplastics and toxicity going into our soil and seas. But without ways of dealing with alternative forms of waste, better materials don’t always lead to a better impact.
Despite ASOS calling its circular collection ‘future-proofing fashion’, some of the materials they’ve used are thermoplastics that are very difficult to recycle.
ASOS is being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority for its use of the name 'Responsible Edit':
The criteria used by some of these businesses to decide which products to include in these collections may be lower than customers might reasonably expect from their descriptions and overall presentation – for example, some products may contain as little as 20% recycled fabric
– UK Competition and Markets Authority
Fossil fuel giant BP rebranded to ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and spend millions advertising their low-carbon energy products. Their website boldly states: 'Our purpose is reimagining energy for people and our planet. We want to help the world reach net zero and improve people's lives.'
In 2019 environmental action group ClientEarth pointed out that while BP may talk the talk about how they're 'working to make energy cleaner', more than 96% of BP’s annual spend goes towards oil and gas.
Has BP upped their game since 2019? The short answer is no. You’d hope they had increased investments into renewables, considering the increased effects and awareness of climate change. But in late 2022 BP were criticised over their plans to spend billions more on fossil fuels than green energy.
What you can do
At the end of the day, we need to see governments holding businesses to account by legally challenging them.
But there are some things you can do to avoid greenwashing:
- Start by buying better to begin with: choose brands that clearly care. Canopey.com brings them all under one roof.
- Avoid brands that use terms about sustainability without backing up their claims. Look for a 'Sustainability' policy on their website or ask them directly.
- Check for reputable certifications like B Corp, Cradle to Cradle and GOTS Certified Organic.
- Use consumer advice websites and ethical brand directories like Good On You, Ethical Consumer and Giki to find out more.