And how you can help stamp it out by Jane Shaw
How do you like the sound of ‘carbon neutral oil’? Or perhaps a processed drink that’s ‘healthy for you, and healthy for the planet’?
As Granny used to say: if it sounds too good to be true, then the chances are, it is.
A whopping 40% of online claims amounted to greenwashing.
Greenwashing is all around us - words, slogans and images designed to make us buy things by making them seem ‘greener’ than they really are. In 2021, when the UK’s Consumer and Markets Authority (CMA) was preparing its Green Claims Code, it estimated that a whopping 40% of online claims amounted to greenwashing.
So, if it’s all around us, how can we spot it? And, when we do spot it, what can we do about it?
Fear not, our handy guide to greenwashing will help you become as eagle-eyed as a litter picker ridding our roadsides of ‘eco-friendly’ fast food containers.
1) Look out for fuzzy, woolly words
2) Is it tackling the main problem it causes?
3) Weird sciency speak
4) Get to know the Green Claims Code
5) It looks ‘green’
6) The ‘so what?’ test
7) Beware carbon - and biodiversity - offsetting
8) Future aspirations
9) Recognise what great green claims look like
10) Does it pass the sniff test?
Fuzzy, woolly words and phrases
Eco-friendly. Green. Natural. ‘Good for you, good for the planet’. When the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and CMA got their teeth into greenwashing, this was the first thing they picked up. These types of words can evoke warm, fluffy feelings of green fields and crystal clear oceans. In reality, they mean… well, they don’t mean very much. Which is exactly why they’re so popular with greenwashers.
To be clear, not every brand that uses these fluffy phrases is deliberately greenwashing. But as more brands realise they need to comply with consumer law, these types of words are being used less and less - genuinely sustainable brands are making an effort to get really specific and clear in the language they use.
Unambiguous words and phrases - like ‘80% organic cotton’, or ‘zero emissions at point of use’ - are where it’s at; whilst generic, non-specific words and phrases are so not cool.
Not tackling the main problem
This is a classic greenwash tactic. Brands often focus on something that sounds ‘sustainable’ (like making the product a little bit more recyclable) whilst ignoring the big issues the product really causes (say deforestation, water pollution, or high carbon emissions).
It’s a ploy used a lot by fast fashion - perhaps a brand is celebrating its use of recycled polyester, whilst not doing anything about the poor quality of its clothing, or the shipping of returns to the Global South, where they end up being burnt or in landfill.
Celebrating making the cap of a food container 100% recyclable, whilst ignoring the emissions created in the manufacturing process; or the impact of monocultures on the environment, is another area where we see this a lot.
Weird sciency speak
Isn’t it odd how some brands will spend gazillions of pounds on hiring top writers to make their products sound alluring - only for us to read their sustainability pages and come away really not sure what those ingredients, acronyms, production processes and impacts actually mean?
It’s almost as if - gasp - they’re trying to bamboozle us with technical language.
This strategy often rears its ugly head when brands try to distance themselves from ‘undesirable’ ingredients or processes - whether palm oil, SLSs, plastics, oil or other controversial nasties.
As a good rule of thumb, if you don’t understand the terminology, ingredients or explanation of the eco ‘solution’ - then it’s a warning flag that perhaps the brand doesn’t want you to.
Get to know the Green Claims Code
We’ve mentioned the ASA and CMA a few times, and there’s a reason. The UK has done a fantastic job in leading the fight against greenwashing. In 2022, the CMA and ASA launched ‘The Green Claims Code’ - AND they’ve gone all out to implement it. It’s a comprehensive guide to complying with the UK’s guidance and legislation on protecting consumers from false claims, and sets out what brands need to do to avoid greenwashing.
As well as the CMA website, the Code often hits the headlines, thanks to ASA rulings - whether against ‘eco-friendly’ plastic lawns or plant-based dog food; or banks, airlines and food manufacturers making less than clear environmental claims. Getting to know the Code is one of the best ways of really getting to grips with greenwashing - both the in-your-face, overt stuff; and the under-the-radar, more subtle versions.
It looks ‘green’
The Green Claims Code is really clear on this. Giving the impression a product is ‘green’ isn’t just about words. The way it looks matters, too. Colours - like leaf greens, ocean blues and ‘natural’ beige or sand colours - all give our brains the hint that this is an ‘eco’ product. Similarly, put any old product in the middle of a pristine rainforest or next to a glittering waterfall, and it can give the impression that its producers ‘care’.
Green isn’t just about words, it’s about looks, too.
The ‘so what?’ test
Sometimes - often? - we only get half the story. “We’ve changed our packaging from plastic to paper”, a brand might cry. Which sounds good, until you apply the ‘so what?’ test. If a brand doesn’t describe WHY what they’re saying is a good thing, it might be worth questioning it further. Altering the packaging might not actually be an environmental benefit - in the case of paper packaging, it may even mean the product now has an increased carbon, water use and pollution footprint.
If a brand doesn’t describe WHY what they’re saying is a good thing, it might be worth questioning it further.
Beware carbon - and biodiversity - offsetting
Let’s be clear. Carbon offsetting isn’t always a bad thing. Many companies who have done all they can to reduce their carbon emissions use carbon offsetting to minimise their environmental impact whilst they work on the last, really hard bits of getting their emissions to zero. And, when using offsetting, they use schemes that are ethical, verified and making a genuine difference to people and planet.
But for every company like that, there are tens who are using offsetting to carry on with business as usual (but pretend they’re not). If a company depends on carbon offsetting for its green claims, that’s a warning sign. If a company is hazy about what it's doing to reduce emissions, but happily talks about its offsetting, that’s a warning sign. If a company is unwilling to say what kinds of offsetting it’s doing, where or with whom, that’s a warning sign.
Is it happening now, or is it a futuristic aspiration?
Let’s be truthful. Plans to do ‘something’ by 2050 don’t really cut it. Brands that are genuinely trying to be sustainable will, almost certainly, be able to talk about what they’ve done already, and what they’re doing now.
If a brand talks about sustainability in terms of what it plans to do at some future date; or if its future plans don’t have much detail on the ‘when’ or the ‘how’; or if the dates are more than five years away; then these are yet more warning signs that they may not be as sustainable as they’d like you to think they are.
Recognise what great green claims can look like
It’s easy to talk about the negatives - but sometimes a healthy dose of positive is just what the (greenwashing) doctor ordered. We recently came across this draft version of a green claim, and it’s a great example about what a clear, specific, easy-to-understand brand description can look like:
“By helping people to cycle journeys that they would normally drive, we help to reduce carbon emissions, air pollution and congestion in local communities”.
Another sign that a business is doing good is that it doesn’t claim perfection. Many ethical brands are upfront about the fact that they’re not perfect, and they’re on a journey to being better. When brands consistently share their warts-and-all sustainability journey, it’s a good sign you can trust their claims.
Does it pass the sniff test?
Does carbon neutral oil really sound like a thing? Has that well-known fast fashion brand really changed its leopard spot prints for its latest ‘initiative’ that’s plastered all over its social media?
Trust yourself. The reality is that greenwashing is big business, and it’s everywhere. If it doesn’t seem quite right? Chances are, it isn’t.
That's great, but what can I do about it?
Being armed with knowledge is all well and good. But when we do something with that knowledge, we can achieve great things.
Calling out greenwash when you see it needn’t be confrontational or aggressive.
Calling out greenwash when you see it needn’t be confrontational or aggressive.
There are those of us who will see it on social media and immediately call it out in the comments - and that’s great. Such public questioning of green credentials is a sure fire way of holding brands to account.
But it’s not for everyone.
If you see your favourite brands making claims that don’t quite ring true, ask them, by private message or email. The truth is that most small, ethical brands don’t have oodles of cash to spend on green claims training; nor do they have an army of high powered advertising agencies at their behest. That means they simply haven’t yet got to grips with the Code, and an awful lot still end up inadvertently greenwashing.
By asking the question, the chances are genuinely ethical brands will appreciate your feedback - not only will they take the time to explain what they mean, but it helps them get better at clear, greenwash-free communications. Ultimately, that’s incredibly powerful.
Because the more that ordinary people get used to seeing ‘genuine’ green claims - claims that are specific, clear, evidence-based and consider the full lifecycle of a product - the more greenwashing stands out like a single use drinks bottle at a zero waste convention.
And that’s when real change happens.
Jane Shaw is an environmental communicator and ethical marketer. She's a little bit obsessed with greenwashing and has a bad habit of spending her Friday nights scrolling social media and questioning brands about their green claims.