Low Waste Tips

How to spot Greenwashing (it's easier than you think)

Elisa Bonnin
August 7, 2023
5 minutes

If you’re reading this article, it’s a safe bet that you care about the environment. And if so, you’re certainly not alone. Research has shown that more than half of adults across 24 countries care about their environmental impact, a number that has grown significantly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Statistics like that show that more and more, people are thinking about the environment before they make purchases, and you can believe that companies have noticed that too. A steadily increasing percentage of products are being marketed as sustainable, and the market share of sustainable products is only predicted to grow. 

But how many of these products are actually sustainable? 

In this article, there should be something for everyone. We’ll discuss greenwashing - making products seem more sustainable than they are. Plus, we’ll give you some tips for spotting products that have been greenwashed. And, if you’re interested in helping to make your company more sustainable, we’ll talk about the steps you can take to avoid greenwashing as a producer. 

What is greenwashing? 

Greenwashing is defined as the act of providing the public or investors with misleading or outright false information about a product’s environmental impact. Basically, it’s a method of making products appear more environmentally friendly than they are, through clever wording, legal loopholes, or outright lying. Greenwashing can also occur when a company emphasizes their sustainability in one area to hide their environmentally damaging practices in another area. Greenwashers often use environmental imagery in their ads, or vague language meant to hide tradeoffs or conceal important information. 

Companies engage in greenwashing because it’s usually more profitable for them. They know that people care about sustainability, and in many cases, are willing to pay a little bit more for a product they think is sustainable. By greenwashing, companies can get all the benefits of a sustainable company without putting in any of the hard work to make sure that their business actually is sustainable. In fact, it’s estimated that approximately 40% of green claims online are likely to be misleading.

You might have encountered greenwashing yourself, if you’ve ever bought a product that claimed to be recyclable, only to find that according to your local recycling guidelines, it was always bound for the trash heap. Trash bags are one particularly egregious example of this. Since you use your plastic trash bags to contain garbage that then goes into the bin, it doesn’t matter whether the bag is recyclable or not. It will not be recycled. Instead, look for trash bags that are compostable, and make sure they come with third-party certification. 

Examples of Big Businesses caught out for Greenwashing

  1. IKEA was accused of greenwashing in 2022 after an investigation by Earthsight found that the company was using illegally sourced wood in some of its products.
  2. H&M was also accused of greenwashing in 2022 after a report by the Changing Markets Foundation found that the company's "Conscious" collection was not as sustainable as it claimed to be.
  3. Coca-Cola was accused of greenwashing in 2020 after a report by the Break Free From Plastic movement found that the company was one of the top polluters of plastic in the world.

Most common signs of greenwashing

While greenwashing can be hard to spot, there are a few telltale signs that can warn you that a product is likely not as green as it appears. Note that any one of these by themselves does not necessarily mean a product has been greenwashed, but they do mean that you might want to take a closer look at the company, its claims and its activities. Here are some things to look out for: 

  1. False claims, buzzwords and vague language - Companies that are legitimately green tend to be specific about how they are helping improve their environmental impact. Be wary of any company whose advertising only uses vague, buzzword-filled language, without being specific about how they actually achieve their goals. Words like “eco-friendly”, “low emissions”, “organic”, “clean”, “sustainable” and yes, “carbon neutral” sound good, but aren’t useful indicators of sustainability on their own. If a company doesn’t go into greater detail in their advertising materials or on their website, be cautious.
  2. Concealing relevant information - Sometimes, greenwashing companies lie by omission. A fashion company, for example, might say that its new clothing line uses sustainable fabrics, which may be true. However, the same company might be a large polluter somewhere else, or they might buy raw materials from someone who is a major polluter. Remember that products aren’t made in a vacuum, but are part of supply chains. True sustainability means making sure that not just the product itself but every ingredient that made it into that product was sourced sustainably.
  3. No recognizable certifications - There are a few agencies that do certify products and packaging as environmentally friendly. Truly sustainable brands will often print endorsements from these agencies on their packaging. If a brand is claiming to be sustainable and is marketing themselves as sustainable but doesn’t have any of these certifications, be careful.
  4. Over-reliance on carbon offsetting - Carbon offsetting is the idea that you can balance out carbon emissions by doing something that will take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, like plant trees. While this works in theory, in practice it’s not an efficient way to combat climate change. Companies can promise to offset carbon emissions without actually doing so. The best way to keep climate change from worsening is to avoid emitting carbon dioxide in the first place. 
  5. False claims of recyclability - It’s easy to state that packaging is recyclable, even if it’s really not. Some packaging is technically recyclable, but recycled in very few regions. Some packaging labeled as recyclable (like the kinds of coated paper and cardboard that are often used as take-out boxes) are not actually recyclable at all. If you’re ever in doubt as to whether a type of packaging is recyclable or not, you can use our Scrapp app to match packaging to the recycling guidelines in your region. Similarly, watch out for any product that claims to be “biodegradable”. Oftentimes, plastic products labeled biodegradable won’t actually biodegrade in the same conditions as your average landfill, so they’re just as bad as non-biodegradable plastic. 
  6. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is - If you’re looking at a product in a high-polluting industry, like aviation or electricity, be especially skeptical of sustainability claims. While it’s not impossible to reduce emissions from flights or to produce energy from renewable sources, it’s certainly a lot more difficult. These are industries where it’s often cheaper to claim to be sustainable than to actually be sustainable, so do your research here. Specificity is important. 

5 top tips for shopping sustainably

  1. Look for certification - Third-party organizations are more likely to evaluate a product neutrally. If you’re ever stumped, you can look for the seal of approval from organizations like Fairtrade International, Cradle to Cradle and many more. If you’re ever confused, this page has a handy summary of sustainability logos and what each means. 
  2. Avoid non-recyclable, disposable packaging - Where possible, look for alternatives to packaging that’s designed to be single-use. Many companies now offer refillable options for their products, so be on the lookout for any of those that might be available in your area. Also, consider picking up packaging that’s made of easily recyclable materials, like aluminum and cardboard, and avoiding packaging made out of materials like plastic, which are difficult to recycle. 
  3. Minimal packaging is best - The more different materials go into an item, the more difficult it is to recycle. Each time you have to open a box, peel away film, or remove an interior plastic bag, you’re creating more waste. Buying products packaged this way reduces the likelihood that each component will be recycled correctly. Sustainable packaging tends to be as simple as possible, so that you can dispose of each component properly and easily. 
  4. Research companies thoroughly - If a company is marketing a product to you based on sustainability, make sure that they’re truly a sustainable company and not a greenwasher. You can do that by looking at their website to see if they specify how they meet their sustainability goals, and by running through the checklist above to see if they set off any alarm bells. 
  5. Buy only what you need - The best way to avoid generating too much waste is to only buy what you need. Buying products that you don’t need or that you won’t use will only end up generating more waste, so be mindful about how much you’re buying. As a bonus, this also helps cut down on household clutter. 

How can businesses avoid greenwashing?

If you produce packaging and you want to be truly sustainable, you’ll need to make sure you're toeing the line between green marketing (letting everyone know how sustainable your new product or packaging is) and greenwashing. Because getting caught greenwashing isn’t just bad for your brand’s reputation, it could hurt you down the line by damaging the trust between you and your customers. 

If you're looking to celebrate your sustainability claims, here are two main points to consider:

  1. Transparency is key - You’ve put in a lot of work to make sure your product is sustainable, and if you want to stand out among all of your greenwasheing competitors out there, the best thing you can do is tell people about it. Make sure your company website has easily accessible information about just how you’re meeting your sustainability commitments. Be transparent, even if you fall short of your goals. It’s better to show where you’ve fallen short of your commitments, why, and what you intend to do about it than to make yourself appear more sustainable than you are. 
  2. Get certified - Getting third-party certification, like the ones mentioned in this article, can help boost your credibility. Make sure to highlight any certifications you receive, by printing the logos on your packaging and by clarifying exactly what them mean on your company website. 

Of course, the best way to make sure that your products are truly sustainable is to design and create them sustainably, taking into account not only the products themselves, but where you source the materials that go into producing them. Of course, this isn’t always easy. So if you’re concerned about sustainability and would like some advice, Scrapp provides bespoke consulting services to help brands just like yours make your packaging more sustainable and communicate it better to your customers. Reach out today to see how we can help you. 

Here's a video from our recent work with Pete & Gerry's

Article by
Elisa Bonnin