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What is greenwashing and where did it come from?

What is greenwashing and where did it come from?

Calling something eco-friendly doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly

The word is out and corporations are taking notice. Sustainability is a top priority for consumers. According to Nielsen's Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of consumers would spend more money on a product coming from a sustainable brand and among millennials that number jumps to 72%.

You know what that means? When consumers talk, big business listens.

A brief history of greenwashing

GREENWASHING noun. A superficial or insincere display of concern for the environment that is shown by an organization.

Greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld, an American environmentalist, who in 1986 came up with the term in an essay examining the “save the towel” movement in hotels. You know the one, that tiny card asking you to reuse bath towels in order to help save the planet. Westerveld noted that hotels seemed to be motivated by a concern to save costs rather than reducing impacts on the environment. And thus, greenwashing was born.

Types of greenwashing

Here are the 5 ways you might encounter greenwashing in your everyday life:

  1. Environmental imagery. Heavy use of Earth-related images, such as trees, water, animals, the colors blue and green. Genuine eco-friendly products generally use very minimal and plain packaging.
  2. Misleading labels. Products that are labeled “certified”, “100% organic”, “cruelty free”, etc without any supportive information proving the claim.
  3. Hidden trade-offs. Businesses that display one aspect of eco-friendly practice while having an un-environmentally friendly trade-off. For example: a clothing company that uses recycled or natural materials for their clothing but the products are made or developed in exploitative conditions.
  4. Irrelevant claims. Claims on packaging that product is free from certain chemicals, when in fact those chemicals have been banned by law, and has zero relevance on how a company might be “green”.
  5. Lesser of two evils. When a company’s claim is true within the category of the product, but as a whole the product poses a greater risk to the environment. For example: organic cigarettes.

Making an informed decision

Here are some tips that will help you know what to look for:

  1. Forget the packaging. Don't get distractedcheck labels for reputable third-party certifications. For example: Soil Association, EcoCert, The Green Seal, SCS Global Services, FSC (for paper and wood), LEEDS (for homes) and The Leaping Bunny (for cosmetics). IMPORTANT! Keep in mind that many small and community-based businesses are not third-party certified, and that's OK. Their claims of eco-friendliness should be supported by sourcing and production transparency on their packaging and/or website.
  2. Stop trusting slogans. A company cannot claim to be “sustainable” if it's not transparent about its business practices. It's important to read beyond the buzzwords. Companies that are passionate about the environment gladly volunteer information.
  3. Avoid the vague. Words like natural, pure, and Earth splashed across a product label spells trouble and are classic greenwashing terms.

Contacting a company directly is also an option when you’re seeking clarity on ethics and sustainability.

Some resources

Good On You
This app has standardized a rating system for the fashion industry. See how your favorite brands rank in terms of ethics, transparency and sustainability. It's also a great resource for informative articles on a variety of sustainable fashion topics and news.

Ethical Consumer
A British not-for-profit publisher sharing information on the social, ethical and environmental behavior of companies and issues around trade justice and ethical consumption.

Ecolabel Index
This site is the largest global directory of ecolabels. Don't know what something means? Look it up! Knowledge is power.

Cruelty-free Kitty Brand Directory
This is a conveniently searchable database of companies that do and don't test on animals.

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