Words: Emilia Wik
Over the recent years, we as consumers have become aware of the impact chemicals have on the environment and our bodies more than ever before. As it follows, more and more companies are offering environmentally friendlier, greener and cleaner options to ease the concerns of their customers. This is visible when you’re scanning through the cosmetics department, browsing for clothes, or simply touring the supermarket aisles; words, such as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ are popping up anywhere and everywhere more frequently than ever. So how could it spell trouble for consumers to be aware of the impact their purchases have on their surroundings and themselves? Truth be told, there is none! Instead, what’s damaging is that many companies are trying to exploit this newfound interest in sustainable products by “greenwashing” their advertisements and product offering.
So what is greenwashing you might be wondering? Greenwashing is defined by the Greenwashing Index as “when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimise environmental impact”. For instance, many companies are now fond of using green colours, earthy looking packaging and words we as consumers associate with environmentally-friendly practices, such as ‘natural’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’, to make their products look earth-friendly; although what’s hiding inside is nothing else than conventionally produced goods. Because hey, sadly it’s easier to advertise differently than to change the production infrastructure.
In fashion, greenwashing can for instance consist of garments advertised as made of organic cotton, yet without the cotton being certified. This means that there’s no real proof that the textile is organic or the way it’s been treated, most commonly with harsh chemicals and dyes. When it comes to food, greenwashing can take the form of a farmhouse on the packaging next to the word ‘natural’, however, getting to the ingredient list, you then discover you can only pronounce about 10% of what’s been listed.
"What’s damaging is that many companies are trying to exploit this newfound interest in sustainable products by “greenwashing” their advertisements and product offering."
So why are companies taking the easy way out, implementing marketing strategies that fool their customers rather than introducing actual sustainable changes into their businesses practices? One of the main reasons behind this is that remodelling the norm from a conventional to a sustainable supply chain method requires vast investment in terms of time, money, resources and skills. Another one might be that it simply not possible to change the current production practices into greener strategies, e.g. there isn’t enough skilled labour or the right raw material to produce something of real value for the company. Thus, as marketing in many areas of the world is fairly unregulated, greenwashing becomes the simplest and cheapest option to reach customers who are keen on shopping greener, without having to spend much time or resources on transforming a whole company.
Greenwashing might be especially difficult to discern for people who are just becoming aware of the impact their purchases have, but also for seasonal ‘green’ shoppers, especially when a brand heavily advertises itself as organic. However, the many larger companies failing to realise the potential of growing sustainably has led to a new generation of start-ups that have this etched in their core; that dare to go an extra mile in terms of using sustainable materials as well as ethical supply chains. A rising trend amongst these smaller brands is radical transparency and honesty, meaning that they communicate openly about their ethos, supply chains and materials used, making it easier for us as customers to see what they stand for and how sustainable their operations are.
So what can we as consumers do to combat greenwashing? Try to look at the bigger picture and don’t focus solely on advertisements and words printed on the packaging, but analyse how the company acts as a whole; do they have any certifications to prove what they are claiming and are they transparent in the way they act? If not, dare to ask questions and if you receive vague answers be vary, it might be another example of greenwashing gone too far.
"Analyse how the company acts as a whole; do they have any certifications to prove what they are claiming and are they transparent in the way they act?"
I truly hope that 2017 will bring more consumer interest in looking beyond advertisements and clever wording into what brands actually stand for and endeavour to do. Because the huge effort that goes into creating something truly ethical and sustainable should be recognised and thus rewarded, so let’s not let the greenwashers win this one.