The trendiness of environmentalism is sort of a catch-22. Public interest in sustainability is obviously positive, however, as consumer interest in “eco-friendly” products increases, so does corporate greenwashing. The term greenwashing describes companies that focus more on marketing their products as environmentally friendly rather than actually committing to implementing environmentally-friendly practices. Greenwashing is more sinister than just the aestheticization of environmentalism. What makes this phenomenon so insidious is that the companies guilty of greenwashing adopt this branding to manipulate consumers into feeling good about their seemingly eco-conscious decisions.

Research shows that two-thirds of Americans consider sustainability when making a purchase and 47 percent are willing to pay more for a sustainable product. Among Gen-Z consumers, this number jumps to 68 percent. Companies know that people are willing to pay more for sustainable products, but instead of selling sustainable products, they sell the illusion.

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These illusory greenwashing techniques can sometimes be difficult to spot, so to help you be a more conscious consumer and not fall for greenwashing tactics, here are 5 red flags to look out for! Use these tips to become an eco-detective immune to corporate deception!

1. Vague Buzzwords

Source: Only Organic / Youtube

When perusing the grocery store you’ve probably noticed packaging labeled “all-natural” or “eco-friendly.” Even processed foods and chemically harsh cleaning supplies commonly boast this branding. Unfortunately, these phrases are often meaningless. There are no strict regulations for what constitutes a “natural,” “green,” or “eco-friendly” product. Think about the standards you might use to describe such vague words like “green?” Difficult right? On the surface, these all seem like positive descriptors but often there is no substance behind them. For example, arsenic and uranium occur naturally but that does not mean these products are beneficial to human health or the environment. Similarly, in fast fashion, vague words like “conscious” and “empowerment” are used to make a brand’s clothing appear more ethical and sustainable than they really are.

Don’t be fooled by these meretricious words! Look beyond them and research the actual practices of these companies. Or if you’re in a pinch, look out for approved seals such as USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project, Fair Trade Certified, and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

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2. Idyllic Imagery

Idyllic imagery is the visual equivalent of vague buzzwords. Greenwashed packaging will often adhere to a very particular aesthetic. You might see muted, earthy tones that are trying to subconsciously project that this product is from the earth. Often, companies will display images of tropical forests, mountains, or animals on their products, subliminally implying that these products are beneficial to wildlife. Some food companies will display images of wheat or a farmstead to evoke pastoral charm and focus your attention on the natural elements of the food, e.g. wheat that was grown on a farm, rather than the unrecognizable chemicals.

To avoid falling for these tactics, be sure to research the companies, and actually read the food labels!

3. Hidden Parent Company

As mentioned, environmental conscientiousness is growing in mainstream popularity. To capitalize on this trend, large conglomerates sometimes create smaller brands and market them using vague buzzwords and idyllic imagery. Sometimes parent companies are not listed on product packaging so you might actually need to research the product to find out if it’s backed by a large conglomerate. The brand Love Beauty and Planet epitomizes this phenomenon. The packaging of Love Beauty and Planet is minimalistic with flowers and other plants. Plus, the word planet is in the name, so surely these products are good for the earth, right? Well…not exactly. While the brand might have eco-friendly ideals, Unilever, their parent company, is antithetical to the image they try to convey. Unilever, like many other large conglomerates, is responsible for a significant amount of the world’s plastic pollution. Unilever is estimated to produce 70,000 tons of pollution per year and Two other conglomerates, Nestlé and Pepsico, are responsible for 95,000 and 137,000 tons, respectively.

Though certain smaller brands might be marketed with an eco-friendly aesthetic, scoping out parent companies is key to determining if a product is greenwashed.

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4. Lack of Transparency

Lack of transparency is a particularly useful way to detect greenwashed fast fashion brands. Most ethical and sustainable brands are proud of their company values and will devote an entire section of their website to explaining their practices and standards. Fast fashion brands will typically avoid discussing the provenance of their clothes, the wages they pay their workers, and their environmental impact – or they will rely on vague, seemingly positive words. For example, H&M, one of the largest fast-fashion brands in the world, recently introduced a “conscious” collection. This collection is particularly deceptive because there is a section of their site dedicated to sustainability and “transparency.” However, H&M remains vague in its claims. Although the brand claims they are using more sustainable material for this collection, they do not provide much detail on how these materials will actually be better for the environment. Similarly, the “conscious” collection makes up a small portion of their clothing. The majority of their products are produced en masse, constantly changing with new seasonal trends. In these vague nods towards sustainability, H&M also conveniently omits information regarding the horrible working conditions of the sweatshops where these clothes are made.

Don’t be fooled by deceptive tactics such as these. Another giveaway that a brand is not sustainable and might be greenwashing is if the site contains hundreds or even thousands of options, often in trendy styles. Typically sustainable brands will focus more on perfecting a select amount of classic styles.

5. Counterintuitive Values

Source: Our Changing Climate / Youtube

Finally, look out for brands that claim to espouse sustainable ideals that are counterintuitive to their product. For example, sorry to any vaporwave fans out there, but Fiji is a prime example of this type of greenwashing. As mentioned in the video above, Fiji’s marketing tries extremely hard to position this product as part of nature. Their slogan “bottled at the source, untouched by man” coupled with imagery of tropical flora and deep blue water work to paint Fiji as a natural, even exotic, product. The reality, of course, is that Fiji water is bottled in plastic and can take 450 years to break down in the environment.

Essentially, be wary of products that claim to be sustainable yet rely on the mass production and consumption of environmentally harmful products like plastic bottles.

Now what?

Unfortunately, as people continue buying these greenwashed products, companies will believe they can keep up the facade of sustainability without having to follow through. Instead of buying these products, research brands that are actually dedicated to upholding environmentalist practices. Other more eco-friendly alternatives include buying fewer clothes overall, making your own cleaning supplies, and buying secondhand. Finally, when deciding to buy new, research small businesses who talk about their ethical and sustainable practices on their websites. Companies deliberately prey on your desire to be a conscious consumer. Don’t get overwhelmed by these deceptive signals of greenwashing, let this newfound knowledge empower you to make more educated decisions on what to purchase. With practice, picking up on these greenwashing techniques will become second nature!

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