How to spot and avoid greenwashing and misleading eco claims Eunji Jang The Skeptic

After ordering a ‘vegan’ leather bag online, I sleep soundly with a sense of pride. It’s because I feel like a wise and conscientious consumer who has chosen an eco-friendly product, instead of buying animal leather bags that harm the environment and animals. However, the fact is that some bags which claim to be ‘vegan’ are produced by mixing polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride to enhance durability – causing harm to the environment in doing so.

With the emergence of numerous companies claiming that their products are eco-friendly and ‘green’, consumers are now at a point where they need to distinguish between genuine environmental friendliness and fake claims. Marketing strategies employed by companies aim to capture the consumer’s attention, stimulate the desire to purchase, and ultimately ensure the sale of their products. In recent times, ‘eco-friendliness’ has become the most prevalent trend in marketing. Terms such as sustainability, eco-friendly, and vegan are commonly used in product promotion, aiming to increase consumer satisfaction with the product, but also to give them a sense of pride in being a conscientious consumer who considers the environment when purchasing eco-friendly products.

This is not to belittle those who seek sustainable consumption for the environment. The increasing awareness of the environment among consumers is undoubtedly a positive phenomenon. Considering the rising instances of climate issues and environmental pollution, public awareness of environmental problems is vital. Therefore, the importance of green marketing, in conjunction with companies taking actions to preserve the environment, is simultaneously growing. Through green marketing, companies can not only fulfil their environmental responsibilities but also enhance brand image, loyalty, and trust (Banyté et al, 2008).

However, there is a problem of exaggerating or falsely claiming the environmental friendliness of products to capture consumer interest, which is referred to as “greenwashing”. Greenwashing refers to cases where the representation or advertising of the environmental attributes or efficacy of products or services is false or exaggerated, aiming to gain economic benefits solely through the image of being environmentally friendly (Visser, 2013). The vegan leather bag is a perfect example.

Choosing the ‘GOOD’ over the ‘BAD’, nominally. Image via Ramdlon, Pixabay.

I spoke to Jane Park, a 25-year-old college student, who describes herself as having an interest in ethical consumption. She explained that when she was living alone, she would use compostable garbage bags made from corn extracts, which were advertised as being made from corn and could decompose like food waste. Later, she learned that while the bags were made from corn and were indeed compostable, they did not meet the criteria set by the Korean standards for food waste, which require decomposition within 90 days. As a result, they were categorized as regular waste, and thrown away with the rest of the rubbish. The experience left her feeling betrayed, but also with a sense of guilt for believing what was promoted without proper investigation.

This perfectly illustrates how greenwashing does not protect the environment, but rather pollutes it and confuses consumers about eco-friendly products, leading to distrust in environmentally responsible companies and markets. To truly engage in ethical consumption, consumers need trustworthy information.

To avoid greenwashing, it’s essential to understand the various types of greenwashing and make an effort to see through the superficial nature of certain words used in marketing that aim to deceive consumers. In 2009, the Canadian environmental marketing company TerraChoice released ‘The Seven Sins of Greenwashing’, which categorises different types.

“Sin of the Hidden Trade-off”

The hidden trade-off happens when a company emphasises certain environmentally-friendly attributes of a product while not disclosing its overall negative impact on the environment. For example, using recycled paper may seem eco-friendly and sustainable – however, the production process of recycled paper often involves harmful chlorine bleaching processes and it causes significant environmental harm. Similarly, Levi’s produced an eco-friendly denim line with methods aimed at reducing excessive water usage in the denim production process, claiming a 28-96% reduction in water usage compared to traditional denim production. However, as a high-volume denim producer, Levi’s, utilizes a wide range of processes, labour, and environmental resources, including dyeing, washing, finishing, and post-processing. Despite the water reduction, the net result is that Levi’s contributes to environmental pollution in its high-volume denim production, while selectively promoting certain eco-friendly practices and concealing the underlying environmental issues.

“Sin of No Proof”

Some products claim to be environmentally friendly, but provide a lack of specific information or evidence to support this claim. For example, H&M’s eco-friendly line, the “Conscious Collection,” is marketed as using sustainable materials. “Conscious Collection” is distinguishable by a green or green-lettered tag, unlike the traditional H&M brand’s white tag. However, H&M does not provide sufficient justification about the reason for this labelling, or accurate details about the proportion of recycled materials used. According to a report by the non-profit organisation Changing Markets Foundation, the Conscious Collection was found to contain more harmful synthetic materials than traditional H&M clothing.

“Sin of Vagueness”

The sin of vagueness describes advertising phrases that promote a product’s environmental friendliness, but are so broad that it is difficult for consumers to make a clear judgment. For example, using prefixes like “chemical-free,” “all-natural ingredients,” or “non-toxic” without providing additional explanations misleads consumers. Arsenic, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde are all 100% naturally occurring, yet they are toxic; simply being natural doesn’t mean something is healthy, or that it possesses “green” characteristics.

“Sin of Irrelevance”

Some greenwashing claims are effectively a distraction – where consumers are provided with information that is unrelated and irrelevant to environmental protection and sustainability. For example, subtly disguising a product as eco-friendly by emphasizing the absence of certain additives, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have already been banned internationally to combat ozone layer depletion. This creates information asymmetry between suppliers and consumers. Misled consumers consider the product environmentally friendly, yet the absence of such additives is unrelated to its environmental impact.

“Sin of Fibbing”

Occasionally, outright deceit is at play, with companies falsifying product ingredients, or using unaccredited environmental certification marks or slogans in product advertising or promotion. This creates the illusion of endorsement by a reputable organisation. Adidas have their own “End Plastic Waste” slogan and Earth-shaped logo, which emphasizes an eco-friendly message, but it risks confusing consumers into thinking the product has received certification from a credible institution, rather than being a marker of an initiative wholly operated by Adidas. Furthermore, despite strong language like “End Plastic Waste”, only a portion of a product is made from recycled materials. The phrase makes the product appear as if it is entirely made from recycled plastic material, implying a positive impact on the environment. However, when shoes made from recycled plastic reach the end of their lifespan, they become plastic waste once again, with no commitment by Adidas to recycle them, ultimately contributing to environmental pollution. Therefore, it’s not valid to claim that purchasing Adidas shoes is a means to end plastic waste.

“Sin of Lesser of Two Evils”

By advertising the environmentally-friendly aspects of a product, a company can seek to distinguish it from competitors – even when the product itself is unavoidably harmful and detrimental to the environment. Examples include organic cigarettes, fuel-efficient sports cars and SUVs, and even some “eco-friendly pesticides”.

“Sin of Worshipping False Labels”

The sin of worshipping false labels involves the use of images that resemble official eco-friendly schemes and certifications, in an effort to confuse the consumer. For example, portraying products as if they have met international standards or legal requirements for sustainability, when in actuality their only accreditation is by less credible – or outright counterfeit – organisations, while the product itself does not conform to rigorous environmental product standards.

How to avoid greenwashing

While the responsibility for avoiding greenwashing absolutely falls on the companies and advertising agencies who market products to consumers, there are still steps we can take to be informed customers, to prioritise the environment while avoiding being deceived by greenwashing.

Firstly, it is important to seek tangible proof and consider the holistic environmental impact in making eco-friendly choices (Kwak, 2022). When it comes to eco-friendly claims, it’s essential not to simply believe slogans or vague terms like ‘eco-friendly’, ‘green’, or ‘natural’ when shopping. Instead, make an effort to find concrete evidence that supports the claim. Consider not only the packaging and outward appearance, but also the product’s entire life cycle, including post-use disposal processes. Furthermore, be aware of the overall impact that the product or service can have on the environment.

Additionally, consumers may not be as knowledgeable as businesses in this regard. Therefore, even if consumers explore information thoroughly and make thoughtful choices, it can still be challenging to avoid intentional deception by companies. Hence, due to information asymmetry and other factors, it’s important to take appropriate action in response to a wrong purchase decision before more victims are affected (Song, 2011). Consumers who succeed in avoiding falling for various types of greenwashing need to help other consumers do the same by revealing the truth about greenwashing.

Some may argue that greenwashing is not a significant issue. They might think that promoting the eco-friendliness of a product in advertisements is simply evidence of the company’s effective marketing strategy if consumers choose to purchase it. Furthermore, for those who are not environmentally conscious, the fact that the advertising for a product exaggerates its eco-friendliness may not be of great importance.

However, greenwashing is more than just marketing. Consumers need to be aware of the issues surrounding greenwashing and work to prevent its spread. Greenwashing exploits the good intentions of consumers who want to contribute to the environment, using it as an easy way to gain profits. Furthermore, it disregards the original intentions of consumers and erases the efforts of other companies genuinely striving for sustainable production. Consumers deceived by greenwashing may feel betrayed and develop mistrust towards eco-friendly products, sustainable practices, and corporate responsibility for sustainable production.

The eco-friendliness of a product is just one among many features. If a company highlights it prominently in its advertising, it becomes a representative characteristic of that product. However, if the claim of eco-friendliness is false, it raises questions about the reliability of the product’s other secondary features. Companies that engage in deception are likely to do so on multiple fronts. It is essential to be vigilant against greenwashing, which deceives both consumers and the environment.

Further reading

Banytė, J., & Gadeikienė, A. (2008). Corporate social responsibility as a marketing means in Lithuanian business practice. Economics and Management, 13, 227-238.

Kwak, H. (2022). How do consumers’ perceptions of brands change? Investigating a fashion brand’s green marketing, authenticity, and purchase intention in the context of greenwashing. The Research Journal of the Costume Culture, 30(2), 189-207

Song, E. (2011). Consumers` Purchase Behavior Intention after the Greenwashing Perception. JOURNAL OF CONSUMER STUDIES, 22(1), 315-339.

Visser, W,. (2013). CSR 2.0: Transforming Corporate Sustainability and Responsibility, Springer, 13.

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Eco-friendly consumerism is big business, which is why companies engage in deceptive greenwashing marketing to fool us into thinking our purchases are kind to the planet
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