Now more than ever, companies old, new, big, and small are realising that sustainability is a value that an increasing number of consumers care about. More and more consumers are changing their shopping habits to align with their values. In a 2019 study by Coleman Parkes Research, 47% of surveyed consumers said that they want to do business with environmentally conscious retailers. In a survey from Hotwire in 2019, 47% said they had "switched to a different product or service because a company violated their personal values." The top reason for switching was concerns over the environment.
Businesses the world over are playing catch up with this market. You may have noticed that over the years many household name brands have released "green" and "eco-friendly" versions of their products. You've also probably seen ads about how sustainable a company's practices are and how they're doing their part to help protect the planet.
Unfortunately, this may not be good news. A lot of brands that have been publicly touting sustainable practices have been called out for doing some dodgy stuff behind the scenes - lobbying for less regulation, unethical labour practices, using ingredients or producing byproducts that harm the environment, etc.
This practice is called greenwashing. The Oxford Learner's Dictionary defines it as "activities by a company or an organization that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment." It's ultimately an effort to mislead the public into thinking that what is on offer is more ethical than it actually is.
There are tons of examples of this - from misleading advertising, products with green packaging and buzzwords on brands that have a record of unethical practices, to the really egregious cases. One such case, which is considered by environmentalists as the gold standard of greenwashing, is the mid-1980's People Do campaign by oil company Chevron. It was an awarded and highly effective advertising campaign that depicted the company as one that actively worked to protect wildlife when in reality their record was quite murky. Critics pointed out that the programs they promoted were actually required by law and cost nowhere near the amount they used to run the ads. On top of that, while the campaign was running, Chevron was also violating both the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and spilling oil into wildlife refuges. Obviously, that's a particularly bad case but versions of this practice are done by companies everywhere everyday and it's up to us consumers to sift through the crap to find brands that truly align with our values.
So, how can you spot which brands are doing this?
Unfortunately, it isn't easy. However, there are three questions you can ask to help you out.
Are the claims clear?
The claims or buzzwords "eco-friendly" or "all natural" are popular ones that fall under this category. They sound good but they're ultimately vague.
Brands may single out one part of their offering as "eco-friendly" such as their packaging, but produce highly toxic waste from their production process. As for the term "all natural," that's questionable as well. Technically, cyanide is a naturally occurring substance but that doesn't mean it belongs in your home. By that logic, so many other harmful ingredients in your products can be technically claimed as natural. Brands can also say their products are derived from plants or nature but the product as a whole may not necessarily be vegetarian or vegan, just that the main ingredients are plant-based. Many brands use this loophole to endear their products to conscious consumers without actually making any significant changes or contributions. They don't have to make sure they live up to the connotations of their claims because they are technically factual.
Some brands will also outright name a product with green buzzwords like "nature" or "earth," or use colours, imagery, and packaging associated with eco-conscious branding but fall short when it comes to any significant actions to do right by the environment.
So, if the claims are vague and all you see on the label or website are green buzzwords, maybe dig a little deeper.
Are the claims true and verifiable?
So the product says "cruelty-free," that's great. But do they sell their products in China where it is required by law to test products on animals? Is your "palm oil free" product also palm oil derivatives free? Is the fashion brand that markets itself as ethical have good working conditions in their factories? Do they pay their people a living wage? Have they allowed their workers to unionize?
Always check if a brand's claims come with the proper certifications to back them up. Vegan certifications from the Vegan Association, Vegan Action, cruelty-free certifications from Leaping Bunny or Choose Cruelty Free, or claims of ethical sourcing, production, or labor backed up by Fair Trade and ISO certifications, or ones from similar, reputable organisations or certifying bodies.
Are the claims relevant?
Sometimes, brands can make claims that are clear and verifiable but ultimately irrelevant in an effort to make their company sound more eco-conscious than they really are. This is done by highlighting steps taken by the company to look after the environment or their workforce but do not tell you that these steps are actually mandated by law or by other regulatory bodies. These are definitely harder to spot because it requires a lot of research and knowledge of industry standards and laws to actually know when brands are doing this. However, it still pays to keep this in mind when doing your shopping.
What can you do to avoid brands that greenwash their products?
Knowing that dodgy brands do this and probably having fallen for this trick before (no shame there, we have too), you're probably wanting to know what you can do to make sure it doesn't happen again. The answer isn't straight forward, unfortunately, and it requires a bit of time and effort. What we all have to do is RESEARCH.
Check the brand's website
Companies that are serious about sustainability usually dedicate a page or at least a section of their website to what they are doing to mitigate emissions, make sure they have good labour practices, ensure that their ingredients are eco-friendly, or whatever it is that applies to their business. Some brands would also fully disclose exactly what materials or ingredients their products are made of. These are all good things. Check these out and judge for yourself whether you think it passes your standards when you read it with the three questions above in mind.
Look for certifications and memberships/affiliations
We've discussed the importance of certifications earlier, but I just want to stress how important these are. Certifications from reputable organisations are really the only way you can be assured that what they are claiming is indeed correct. If you want to be extra thorough, check the certifying organisation's website to see what their process entails so you can judge whether it goes far enough for you or not.
Another thing to look for would be memberships to certain organisations or affiliations to specific causes. Affiliation with organisations like B Corporation and 1% for the Planet are great because it tells you that the brand has undergone third-party verification to make sure that their claims of being sustainable and doing their part to protect the planet are true. Check for NGO and non-profit partnerships that brands might have and see if their advocacies align with yours.
Find the parent company
Some brands that are marketed as sustainable and ethical are owned by larger companies or conglomerates that might have a spotty record on those very issues. If this rubs you the wrong way and you don't like the idea of spending your hard earned money on products ultimately owned by those large corporations, then it pays to find out who really owns the brands you buy from.
Subscribe to resources
All of this research is difficult to do on your own. Luckily there are tons of resources out there that do the research for you - this one included! Subscribing to these resources or following them on social media can help you streamline your research or introduce you to brands that you can earmark for you to have a look at when you get the time.
Here at Your Conscious Cart, we make sure to get the most accurate information about brands' sustainability and ethics so all you have to do is read to see if their values align with yours. The hard part of looking for all the relevant information and reaching out to the brand has already been done for you!
Other resources for specific advocacies such as cruelty-free, vegan, slow fashion, clean beauty, upcycling, organic, etc. exist as well so allot some time to look for them and subscribe. Doing this exposes you to a whole world of new brands that can offer you alternatives for the stuff you want to replace or make you aware of news in the sustainability space that may affect your buying habits.
So there you have it - our guide on how to spot and avoid greenwashed products and brands. Sound off in the comments if you have any questions or if you have any tips for fellow conscious consumers!