Filtering through deceptive green marketing

What is Deceptive Green Marketing? 

It’s safe to say that sustainability and environmental awareness continue to increase on society’s radar today. People are becoming more aware about the countless environmental and social justices embedded in our world, and with this comes a desire to make ethical and environmentally friendly decisions and purchases. With an increase in consumerism during the pandemic, many have tried to curb their impact by supporting businesses who seem to be ethical and eco-friendly on the outside. However, there is often a gap between a company’s formal appearance of being “green,” and their actual practices. 

This hypocritical behavior is known as greenwashing and deceptive green marketing. According to Nancy Furlow in an article from The Journal of Applied Business and Economics, greenwashing is the dissemination of false or incomplete information by an organization to present an environmentally responsible public image. 

Greenwashing can be displayed in a variety of ways, such as through misleading sustainable words, environmental or green imagery on packaging and much more. Deception continues to infiltrate in society causing a multitude of vague and misleading environmental claims, which in turn, are affecting social and environmental well-being. 

Societal intentions to make sustainable choices continue to be tainted through this practice causing many to wonder “how do I avoid falling victim to greenwashing?” Let’s talk about it. 

Why does it occur? 

Generally speaking, greenwashing heightens the reputation of a company and makes them look good to their customers, stakeholders and investors. These pressures lead companies to engage in deceptive green marketing campaigns for mere economic gain through consumer retention. Supporting ethical and sustainable companies is becoming a norm in society and companies and corporations essentially want to hop on this trend in order to keep their customers at the cost of moral and integrity. 

In a study about greenwashing in Corporate America at Notre Dame Law, Ethics and Public Policy Attorney Jacob Vos stated that “If companies’ actions matched up with all of their rhetoric, greenwashing would not be an issue. However, if a company can reap the benefits of a green reputation without actually spending the time or money to substantially change its practices, it reaps all of the benefits without any of the associated costs.” 

Know the Signs 

In attracting a green audience, companies often use claims that sound environmentally friendly, but Furlow said these are actually vague and at times may be false. This thereby makes navigating through deceptive green marketing difficult for the general public simply because a deeper level of understanding is often required to understand many complex environmental and social issues. However, there are some of the top signs we can look out for to filter through deceptive green marketing. 

First off, look out for vague or misleading words on packaging and products including words such as green, pure, natural and eco-friendly. Though these words seem to present a sustainable product, there may not be evidence to support these claims. 

For example, a diaper brand can market their product as pure and natural and supposedly better for the environment. Yet, in a Cision article said diapers are meant for single usage and add about 20 billion disposable diapers to landfill each year, accounting for 3.5 million tons of waste.

Another example of greenwashing to look out for is the usage of unseen trade-offs. This occurs when companies attempt to heighten one, often miniscule, eco-friendly aspect of their product. Elux Magazine said in an article that the Huggies natural diaper brand, along with other mainstream brands, can market their product as made from organic cotton, yet there may only be a small piece of organic cotton on the outside of the diaper while the rest of the diaper may be bleached with chemicals.

Another sign to look out for is the lesser of two evils trick. This occurs when companies attempt to make their products look like they have become better for the environment, yet still have a significantly negative environmental impact. 

For example, a sandwich bag brand can market their product as “better for the environment,” yet their product is still made from plastic packaging and cannot be recycled at home in curbside recycling bins. Instead, they must be taken to a collection bin at participating grocery stores in order to be recycled. 

Another sign to look out for is suggestive images on packaging which display misleading positive green impact through the usage of the color green and images of environmental greenery. Rithika Senthilkumar wrote in the Daily Collegian that a water bottle company can portray their packaging with fields, trees and sparkling blue water, even though single-use water bottles make an enormous contribution to the plastic pollution in our oceans, lakes and rivers. 

Another common method of greenwashing is clickbaiting. Companies have significantly marketed their products using this method throughout the pandemic. This occurs when labels and advertisements on an online product are marketing their product as “green,” by using vague and misleading words as mentioned previously. 

A Green & Thistle article asserted that companies can go as far as making up their own certifications and be self-declared. For example, Phil Forbes said in a Pack Help article that a fashion advertisement can market their clothing as sustainable, yet their website does not specify the actual environmental benefit for each garment specifically, such as the amount of recycled material in each garment. 

Going Forward

One of the simplest ways to avoid greenwashing is to purchase locally handmade products, such as at a farmers market. Vos recalled in his study that industrialized companies account for many of the world’s biggest greenwashers and are the world’s biggest polluters so an easy step to avoid falling victim to this is by supporting as many local and ethical businesses as possible. 

Next, you can install apps such as Tokki, Good on You and Think Dirty, which help users make sustainable purchases. Tokki is a free app which provides users the ability to search over 6,000 brands and allows users to see if a brand is cruelty free, vegan, certified bio/organic and much more. Good On You is another free app which allows users to search and discover ethical fashion brands through their brand rating system. The Good On You brand rating system considers the most important social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry to assess a brand’s impact on people, the planet and animals. Even if someone searches for a brand which is deemed unsustainable, Good On You provides a suggested list of similar brands with higher ratings. 

Think Dirty is another free app which empowers and educates the consumer on the cosmetics industry by allowing them to make an informed decision on what products to purchase. Users are able to search or scan the barcode of products in order to learn about ingredients in beauty, personal care and household products in order to be informed about the environmental impact that cosmetics have on health. Think Dirty provides users with easy to understand information on the product, its ingredients and cleaner options. 

There are also a variety of websites which offer users to browse and purchase handcrafted and second hand goods including Etsy, ThredUp, Poshmark, eBay and Depop. Next, installing Ecosia – a free browser extension – allows users to plant trees with every search. Users are able to search the web with Ecosia, then search ads generate income for Ecosia,  finally Ecosia uses this income to plant trees. 

Ecosia also provides a leaf icon next to search results that guide users to greener, more sustainable choices. On the other hand, they also provide an industrial icon next to search results highlighting climate-destructive fossil fuel companies. 

Although this is by no means a comprehensive list, these are a few first steps to take in the right direction in order to avoid being greenwashed. 

Filtering through deceptive green marketing can be a daunting task for many, but it can be combated with a number of small, effective, interrelated steps. If you’re a consumer, do your own research and check the facts around large corporations and their misleading statements of being ‘green.’ As awareness and education on this issue increases, the resulting benefit will not only be for environmental good, but the creation of a moral and ethically responsible society. 

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