How To Spot Greenwashing

Illustrated and written by Deborah Anderson

With just under 2 weeks to go until Christmas, we’re approaching the last chance that gifts can be sent so that they will arrive in time (you can find the last postal dates for Royal Mail here). With that in mind, we may be thinking of getting our last (or first – no judgement!) bits and bobs bought. This also means it’s your last chance to shop with consideration for the environment. If you missed our past blog post, we give you ideas about how you can be kinder to the planet over the festive period. You can read it here! More and more people are becoming aware of climate change and environmental issues, demanding brands to become more sustainable. This is amazing but unfortunately many brands use sustainability as a marketing tool. When a brand spends more time and money on marketing their products as eco-friendly than actually changing their business process and practices to ensure sustainability, this is called greenwashing. It can catch many well-intentioned shoppers out but here are some greenwashing tricks brands use. Look out for them and question them so that you can make better informed buying decisions this Christmas:

  • Past behaviour – Yes, brands can change but I think it’s fair to be weary of brands that haven’t been sustainable in the past. For example, in 2018, it was found out that Burberry had been incinerating £90m worth of unsold goods over the 5 years prior. They insisted that because the energy created during the burning was captured, that it was environmentally friendly. That doesn’t take away from the sheer scale of waste that took place over that period of time. Burberry stopped the process of burning unsold products only a couple of months later. The fact that change only came about because of the public backlash makes the brand a more difficult one to trust when it comes to sustainability.
  • Irrelevant claims – Sometimes brands make irrelevant claims to make themselves sound eco-friendly. An example of this would be if a product’s label said it was free of a specific chemical when that chemical is already banned by law.
  • Misdirection – The whole reason brands using greenwashing techniques is to mislead, you, the consumers. They often want you to focus on one small “sustainable” aspect while getting you to ignore the rest of their environmentally damaging processes. Sometimes though, their tiny sustainable contributions aren’t even sustainable. For example, many brands use “biodegradable” plastic packaging. However, this type of packaging will only biodegrade in the right conditions i.e. with oxygen and sunlight – conditions they can’t get in the ocean or in landfill.
  • False claims – It’s pretty brazen to outright lie to customers but still some brands do it! A lot of advertising campaigns for “flushable” wipes are doing this when they claim that the wipes disintegrate in the sewer system. Many of these wipes take up to 500 years to decompose and can clog up pipes in what are called ‘fat-bergs’. (Look for the Fine to Flush symbol accredited from WRc on the packet).
  • Lack of evidence/credentials – Brands can make as many claims about their products as they like but how can we believe them without seeing the evidence? Look for legitimate, accredited logos from independent third parties on products or do a little more research to make sure that their claims are true before you make your purchase.
  • Hidden trade-offs – This is linked to misdirection but hidden trade-offs are when brands claim to do something eco-friendly when actually they have an unenvironmental trade-off that is kept quiet. For example, a fast fashion brand may launch a sustainable organic cotton range or sell Black Lives Matter t-shirts when they were made by underpaid people of colour in a developing country. Greenwashing isn’t just to do with being environmentally friendly but also human rights and ethical practices.
  • Lack of transparency – Most brands have dedicated social responsibility pages on their websites to outline their targets and manufacturing processes telling customers how their products were made and by who. If a brand doesn’t have one, you have to question what they are hiding. Even brands that have one can fill it with light, fluffy buzzwords that conscious consumers want to hear, without actually giving any evidence as to what they’re doing to be more eco-friendly. If they’re being vague, there is cause for concern.
  • Clichés – Look for any obvious clichés used in adverts, branding and on packaging such as the colour green, an image of a leaf or words like “natural”. These all carry with them connotations of sustainability. Oil and gas supplier BP do this with the branding of their logo. It uses a green font and has an image resembling a flower to make us think they are environmentally friendly, but how can they be when they make their money from the sourcing and selling of non-renewable crude oil? Brands can use these clichés a lot in their campaigns and sometimes they can seem a bit over-the-top. This could be a sign of overcompensating and therefore, greenwashing. Genuinely eco-friendly products tend to be in plainer packaging.

Greenwashing is a big problem as not only is it unethical in the brand/customer relationship but it takes up vital space in the discussions surrounding climate-change, environmental damage and human rights violations. Ethical Consumer has done some of the hard work for us and rated over 40,000 brands and products based on their ethics. It’s great to not have to solely rely on lists like these and be able to spot greenwashing for ourselves though. We hope that these pointers will make you feel more confident in recognising the signs, calling out brands, as well as encouraging you to support smaller, sustainable and transparent brands like One Wear Freedom! Read about our sustainability here.

Also, check out our amazing winter collection ready for Christmas here and remember that you can get a One Wear Freedom gift card for your rental-rocking friends for the perfect sustainable stocking-filler!


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