5 signs a company might be greenwashing

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Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products or actions are environmentally conscious. Essentially, greenwashing is a marketing/PR ploy that makes people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it actually is.

How can you tell that a company is greenwashing its efforts? There are certain words, phrases and certifications, symbols, colors, and imagery that companies carefully select to make you believe their products or actions are a better environmental choice than their competitors.

Let’s break down the key greenwashing signs to look for on products using examples I found at my local store.

1. Greenwashing Buzzwords

Let’s start with the common words companies use. You’ve probably heard these terms before and possibly purchased a product because of it:

  • Eco-
  • Bio-
  • Sustainable
  • Natural
  • Green
  • Recyclable
  • Compostable
  • Chemical-
packaging with greenwashing buzzwords

Anyone else notice the irony of a bamboo toothbrush labeled eco-friendly but packaged in non-recyclable plastic?

2. Phrases & Certifications

Then they use these words to create phrases and fake or unverified certifications.

  • Eco-friendly
  • Biodegradable
  • Non-toxic
  • Chemical-free
  • Cruelty-free
  • All-natural
  • Made with plants
  • Made with recycled contents

A common group of certifications that people fall for is “cruelty-free, free-range, or cage-free”. “Cruelty-free” is not a regulated phrase. According to the FDA, “The unrestricted use of these phrases by cosmetic companies is possible because there are no legal definitions for these terms”.

packaging with unverified claims

None of these words or phrases are actively regulated by the FDA or other governmental entities. Meaning any company can add these words onto their product in hopes that you will buy it because of their ‘green’ efforts. And a lot of these terms are baseless – they have no actual meaning except the one that we have made up in our heads to believe. Or they have multiple meanings, and it’s up to consumers to guess.

3. Symbols

Most of these certifications are visually represented with earthy symbols like trees, leaves, rainbows, clouds, happy animals, and of course, the earth.

packaging with symbols that have no context

But sometimes these symbols stand on their own with no context. Probably the most common symbol we see around is the recycling symbol. Just because a product has a recycling symbol on it, doesn’t mean that item is recyclable. We cannot stress this enough. Just like how the common greenwashing words and phrases aren’t regulated, neither is the recycling sign. Companies can add it to their products and packaging even if they aren’t recyclable. You have to look up what items are accepted by your local waste hauler before contaminating the recycling stream by wishcycling.

4. Colors

product packaging with shades of green and fake wood elements

The symbols aren’t the only thing that mimics natural elements, so do the colors. The whole color family of green has been co-opted to represent sustainability. Plus, there’s the blue color palette too. And don’t forget about fake wood design overlays.

5. Suggestive imagery

And when symbols and colors aren’t enough, they add suggestive imagery to make you think about nature.

product packaging with suggestive imagery

I picked this item up as an example for a few reasons. The first was the blatant use of blue-tinted water and bright green leaves, which is suggestive imagery. The second was the excessive packaging – the plastic tube didn’t need an additional paperboard box with a plastic window.

Are you nervous that your company might be greenwashing? Find out here.

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