The Truth About Greenwashing

Eco-conscious parents choose environmentally friendly products from sustainability focused companies to do their part in helping conserve the planet’s natural resources. But what happens when “green” companies aren’t practicing what they preach? Below, we share what to look out for to ensure the eco-products you buy are actually “green.”  

What is greenwashing?

Greenwashing is the practice of using advertising, labeling, and public relations to falsely convey that an organization’s products, processes, and policies are environmentally friendly as a sales tactic. The term was first coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. 

Greenwashing can occur in any industry, from food to beauty to oil. One such example is the beauty industry, which is worth about $100 billion in the United States but is not highly regulated. Beauty companies can label their products as “natural” or “clean” without evidence to back up their claims. The good news is that many beauty companies, such as Sephora, have created their own clean criteria for the products they sell.  

In 2009, Greenpeace launched a Stop Greenwashing campaign to call out organizations that use greenwashing to make false claims and to make consumers more aware of this issue. A common greenwashing practice is through advertising—Greenpeace refers to this as “ad busters”—when companies highlight the “green” aspects of the product while not including any negative impacts. 

How common is greenwashing? 

As more consumers focus on their own environmental footprints, and therefore seek products that fit into this category, greenwashing has become more prevalent. According to a 2020 study by Forrester, a third of American online shoppers say they spend more time thinking about the environment than before the pandemic. 

The same study analyzed highly empowered consumers (e.g. those who seek and champion brands focused on sustainability) and found that 68% plans to up their efforts to identify environmentally friendly brands, 61% look for energy-efficient labels, and 47% regularly buy organic products. 

Companies use greenwashing to cash in on consumers looking for more eco-friendly and sustainable products by making false claims. One study by the European Commission found that 42% of companies exaggerate their sustainability claims. 

How to identify greenwashing

As consumers, the best way to avoid falling for the greenwashing trap is to educate yourself about the company’s products and practices. When purchasing eco-products, consumers should always: 

  • Do your research: How accurate are the company’s “green” claims?. Do they willingly provide data on their website and conduct regular studies (even third-party testing) on their products?
  • Read the label: Food products that heavily advertise “low fat,” for example, may be trying to distract from the amount of added sugar or other ingredients. 
  • Beware of “green” language: Does the company have hard data to back up commonly used buzzwords like “natural,” “clean,” “eco- friendly,” “eco-conscious,” “biodegradable,” or “renewable”?

Look for external certifications: Regenerative Organic Certification, USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Ecocert, Certified B Corporations, Fair Trade Certified, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Green Business Bureau, etc.