Greenwashing Guide

Today I want to talk about greenwashing.  This is so important to know about if you want to be environmentally friendly in your lifestyle.  I am going to lay out what greenwashing is, tips on how to identify it, ways to avoid it, and some examples that I have found in the last year on my journey.

I apologize in advance for this post- I am not here to trash companies but rather to inform by using examples of greenwashing initiatives. I have stopped supporting and buying from many companies due to their lack of sustainability efforts, because I do believe that if we all stop buying into these things, companies will be forced to stop making them and change with the demands of their consumers.  We as consumers have the power to change the demand of so many industries, and I try to be a part of that as much as I possibly can. 

Greenwashing is a form of marketing, when a company provides misleading information about how environmentally friendly that company’s products, policies, or goals are.  Companies use colorful campaigns with slogans and key words that cause the uninformed majority of people to believe that they are making moves to be more sustainable.  Many terms that are used out there are not even regulated.  For instance, I can say that something is eco-friendly, and because it is not a regulated term, I can write that on any product to mislead.  You also have to check that every ingredient in a product is sourced sustainably, because a lot of products will say they are “green” or “sustainably sourced” but are only referring to one of the many ingredients in them, so overall they are not actually sustainable at all. 

Key Words to Watch Out For:

Circular (or closed-loop economy): can only really be true if proven at every single stage of production

Net-zero: could mean net-zero carbon, or net zero emissions, but not necessarily zero carbon emissions.

No chemicals: can be misleading because all substances are composed of chemicals, so you have to check the ingredients lists very thoroughly to determine if they are all natural and ethically sourced. They are usually not actually chemical-free.

Vegan: this term on a product means that the ingredients were not derived from animals and no animal testing was performed in order to make the product and its ingredients.  This does not mean that the ingredients were ethically sourced, or even sustainably sourced.  There must be a separate certification for that on the label.

Eco-friendly: this term is not regulated, so anyone can use it and it really means nothing in that case.

Cruelty-free: this term is not regulated either, so unless something is certified vegan with the PETA leaping bunny logo, you can’t trust that it is actually cruelty-free.

Organic: So many companies claim their products to be organic, when in fact they are not.  Certified organic ingredients are regulated by the USDA, but many other countries do not have any regulations at all, and anything can be labeled organic.  Therefore, unless you have the information on the supply chain of that product, you really can’t know for sure if it is truly organic.  If it is made locally and is certified, it is more trustworthy. 

Pasture raised, or Free-Range: For the non-vegans that may read this, if there is no animal welfare certification on a product, there is no way to regulate whether the animals you are consuming were treated ethically, so you really can’t trust these terms without a welfare certification. 

Some examples of companies that have committed greenwashing in campaigns:

Starbucks: Many of these locations have eliminated plastic straws, but now have different lids on their cups that have a lip on them for drinking without the need for a straw.  This seems like a great idea, except that the new lids contain even more plastic than the previous setup of thinner lids with a straw, so this is actually greenwashing.  It looks like they are moving in a greener direction by eliminating plastic straws, but in reality, this initiative is only hurting the planet more.

Pepsi: They have promised to make 25% of their plastic bottles from recycled material globally by 2025, but… that’s not really doing much.  It looks like a great green campaign, but plastic can only be recycled so many times, so this is not actually helping the planet at all.  It is all an exaggeration of the progress they are making to look like they are doing a lot more to help tackle the plastic pollution problem.

Coca-Cola: They have a similar campaign, promising to reduce their unrecycled plastic bottles by 20% in the US…but they produce 3,400 plastic bottles per second, so they are still going to be one of the largest plastic polluters in the world.  What they really need to do is promote aluminum cans and bring back glass bottles, because those materials are what is actually infinitely recyclable.  I did read that they are going to be bringing back glass bottles as part of a refillable initiative at some point in the future, but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Now, anyone who knows me knows that I get bad migraines, and I don’t really do caffeine, so Diet Coke is my go-to migraine medication.  I love it; it kills my headaches and gives me a little energy boost.  However, I only ever buy cans of soda that come in a cardboard box because I refuse to buy the plastic.  I am slowly working on weaning myself off of drinking soda altogether, because I want to be a true activist (and not greenwash, haha) and not support these companies at all.  However, no one is perfect, and I feel good enough about only buying aluminum cans for now. A girl can only do so much, y’all.

Nestle: These guys have also pledged to switch to recyclable plastic bottles completely by 2025.  Nestle really bothers me because I personally can’t stand the fact that they have a site near Flint, Michigan where they pay almost nothing to pump millions of gallons of water per year to bottle while there is still a clean water crisis going on right next door.  The amount of profit they make off of their bottled water is disgusting to me, and in the process they are a huge polluter of the environment and a massive plastic producer.  You also really don’t want to get me started on bottled water- let’s not even go there today. Anyway, Nestle packaging is always the leader in what is found during beach clean ups around the world, and that has a lot to do with how massive of a company they are. The idea with these big companies that are leaders in plastic pollution is that since they are contributing so much to this destruction, they should be making much larger moves to help reverse it.  Nestle, Pepsi and Coca Cola are all doing something, but it is going to make almost no difference in the long run. 

Gilette: They had a campaign for refillable razor handles that last for 5 years… guys they are metal handles that will last forever- please don’t buy a new one every 5 years.  This is greenwashing- it seems sustainable but keeps you buying from the company when you don’t need to keep giving them money.   

Some general forms of greenwashing to look out for

Cheap to buy means cheap labor: You may think you are getting a great deal on something because it is cheaper on that random ad site that popped up on your social media feed, but there is always a reason for this.  I complimented my sister on a cute swimsuit she wore last summer, which prompted her to tell me about how cheap it was, and everyone loves a good deal, so cool, right? I have gotten ads for Shein so many times on my Facebook feed this time of year with all their adorable bikinis and coverups that cost way too little.  Well, companies like this do not pay their workers a fair wage, which is why their products can be priced so low.  Many companies use trafficking and slavery to have things made so that we can buy a shirt for $3 online.  This goes for chocolate too.  I only buy Fair Trade (and vegan) chocolate bars because I don’t need to eat a candy bar that cost me $1 when the person that farmed the cocoa to make it was only paid $1 for an entire day of manual labor.  There are Fair Trade certifications that you can look for on labels for products to ensure you are supporting fair wages for workers all over the world.  To avoid the fast fashion problem, just don’t buy clothes new.  I only thrift what I need and don’t support any new fast fashion items coming into existence.  Another thing to consider in the fast fashion industry is that most of those clothes are never even bought.  H&M makes over 3 billion garments per year, while over $4 billion worth of those clothes goes unsold.  Most of those clothes are not made from organic cotton or any other sustainable materials, either. 

Gendered products: As a woman, I know from experience that all women’s products cost more than men’s.  Sometimes they are the exact same thing, but marketed to women and therefore the cost is higher.  You have to watch out for this and buy gender neutral products, or just buy the men’s version and save some money.  Before going zero waste, I started using men’s deodorant because it was significantly cheaper and worked so much better.  I don’t need my deodorant to smell like roses, I just need it to do its job when I sweat.  I also wanted to avoid the aluminum in deodorant sticks, and women’s aluminum free deodorant prices were completely insane.  Meanwhile, the cheap men’s deodorant didn’t have any aluminum in it anyway.  I now use Ethique deodorant bars, which are truly natural, vegan and zero-waste, but on my way to that I had several steps and learned a lot about greenwashing. 

Certifications you can trust

USDA Organic: the word organic itself can be misleading, but if a food product has the USDA certification on it, you can trust that it has been certified by a federal agency.

PETA’s bunny certification: The words vegan and cruelty-free are not regulated, so the best way to know for sure if a product is truly not harming animals is to look for PETA’s leaping bunny certification.  You can also search for personal care brands and products on PETA’s database on their website, which I have found to be helpful when I am unsure.  For food products, the best thing to do is to thoroughly read the ingredients, because some products may say that they are vegan, but still contain certain ingredients that some vegans do not consume, like gelatin, vitamin D3, or honey.

Fair Trade Certified: In order to ensure that something has been made under fair working conditions, you can look our for this certification.  Some examples of products that may have this are coffee and chocolate.  I don’t drink coffee, but my recommendation for a really good vegan and fair-trade certified chocolate bar would be Equal Exchange Chocolates. 

Carbon Trust Carbon Neutral Certification: Carbon Trust has a certification program for retailers, organizations, etc. to have their carbon footprint analyzed and certified to be truly neutral.  So many companies out there will say that they offset shipping emissions or have a zero-waste facility, but one does not mean they are doing the other.  They can offset carbon emissions through shipping, but still may not be offsetting the emissions that their production produces.

Animal Welfare Approved: Again, I don’t eat meat, but if you do, this certification is considered the highest with the most ethical standards for living space, grazing, roaming, feeding, etc. Although I am personally vegan and extremely anti- meat, dairy, and eggs, I am not here to preach to you to do the same, and I would recommend looking for this certification on your meat and eggs.  So many nice-sounding terms for animal welfare are not regulated, and so many farms have such horrendous living conditions for animals that I would never trust anything they say without a certification.  Or of course, if you are buying locally, you can scope out the conditions for yourself.

*These photos are not mine – I wanted to include pictures of labels for all of these certifications but did not have anything with USDA Organic or Animal Welfare Approved labels to photograph for this post. These images were all copied via Google Images.

One more thing I wanted to talk about is the difference between biodegradable and compostable.  I feel like these terms are included in a lot of greenwashing simply because the definitions of what these words mean are not always clear.  A lot of companies use these terms interchangeably, which is greenwashing, because they are not the same thing. Both terms refer to items that will break down in the environment, so the difference can get a little fuzzy. 

Biodegradable things can be broken down naturally by microorganisms, and it takes different amounts of time for different things.  For example, if you rake leaves into a pile in your backyard, and it rains or snows enough to make a wet, nutritious environment for microorganisms, that leaf pile will break down on its own by Spring.  However, a plastic bag takes over 500 years to biodegrade.  So, really, most things are biodegradable if you have thousands of years to wait to get rid of them. 

Compostable materials also break down, but they break down due to specific, controlled conditions.  Humans drive the process by introducing water, oxygen, and materials that will help the process proceed.  For home composting, you can break down yard waste, vegetable and fruit scraps (no meat or dairy because they will introduce molds that will disrupt the process), cardboard and paper into soil over time.  You introduce oxygen into the system by turning it over; in our compost pile, we take a shovel and literally turn the pile over to mix it and get oxygen flowing through the mass of dirt we are creating.  These conditions are important because without them, this process would take a lot longer.  However, it is nice to do yourself because you end up with fertile and healthy soil that you can then use for gardening.  There is also commercial composting, where materials are sorted, ground down and placed into composters to break down. 

So, biodegradable is a more general term used to describe anything that will break down in the environment at some point.  If something is labeled as biodegradable, it does not mean that it will break down in a short amount of time, so you have to be conscious about that.  I have blue light glasses for working on the computer because I’m migraine prone, and the frames are biodegradable.  That’s super cool to me, but I also know that it is still going to take years for them to actually break down.  I personally try to stick to compostable materials and packaging because I know that I can turn it into soil in my backyard, rather than wonder about where a biodegradable thing is in the world.  You can’t break down biodegradable materials in the dirt at home, so you still have to throw them in a landfill, which also means they can end up in the ocean, or at least that’s where my brain goes with that!

I think this is enough ranting for now. This post was long, but I really wanted to do my due diligence and cover as many bases as I could in one post.  I can break these topics down even further in future posts, but the bottom line here is that in order to avoid greenwashing, you have to be a little critical of the companies you support.  Shopping takes me so long now because I am always checking into exactly where things come from and what is in them, but it does help me spend less money by impulse buying tons of stuff I don’t really need.  The best moves I have made to avoid greenwashing have been to find companies that I can trust and order as much from them as I can, and to grow as much of our own food as we can, which we’re working on this year.  There are also a lot of greenwashing blogs and pages out there so if you are unsure about a company, you can always look them up and see what information is out there.   

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