“Greenwashing” is a term that describes when businesses exaggerate the truth about the environmental benefits of their products or services. Under pressure to keep up with consumer demand for sustainable and ethical practices, many brands will jump to promoting a new “green” mission before they actually do the internal work needed to develop a sustainable company.
The word “greenwashing” originated in 1986, coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld. In an essay, he wrote about how the hotel industry falsely promoted their reusing of towels as one part of a broad environmental strategy, but in actuality it was designed primarily to save the hotel money.
It’s similar to pinkwashing, a term coined by Breast Cancer Action. When that pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness became popular, many brands rushed to stick it on their packaging and websites — even brands that sold products knowingly linked to the disease. (Pinkwashing is now more widely used to refer to brands that profit off of the LGBTQ+ pride movement).
Brands that rush to portray themselves as eco-friendly may actually cause their company more harm than good. While consumers do want brands to adopt ethical practices, it’s even more important for a brand to be trustworthy. In fact, 8 in 10 American customers say they will continue to buy from a brand they trust — even if a different brand becomes trendy.
This is when companies will imply an environmental choice that doesn’t exist. Companies like insecticides or disinfectants may claim to be free of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a principal contributor to ozone depletion. But CFCs have been illegal for almost 30 years. Similarly, a brand might label their tomatoes as non-GMO…when there are not, and have never been, genetically engineered tomatoes in produce aisles.
Some brands will use graphic design to make their product look like it has third-party certifications, but it’s a deceptive tactic. While a brand can’t claim to be USDA-certified organic without the actual certification, they’re free to use buzzwords like “eco-friendly,” “sustainable,” or “socially good” without any third-party backup. Beware of brands that craft meaningless icons using these words in an attempt to fool customers that they have legitimate certifications.
A brand may be hiding an even bigger issue behind their green screen — and it’s not always strictly environmental. One example is when fast fashion brands promote separate recycled or sustainable clothing lines, but then fail to disclose that that clothing is developed through exploitative or not-so-eco-friendly conditions. An ethical company, on the other hand, would be honest to disclose information about their water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, and working conditions.
We know no brand is perfect. But here are a few that set a precedent for clear, sustainable initiatives that go beyond the buzz.
We can surmise that LEGOs — which are literally just small pieces of plastic — probably aren’t doing any favors for the environment. However, the company has recognized that pitfall and recently pledged to spend $400 million over the next three years to fast-track green initiatives. This includes swapping their single-use plastic packaging for paper bags and a pledge to make all of their products from sustainable materials by 2030.
An activist brand focused on conservation, Patagonia gives one percent of all sales to ecological grants and organizations. Plus, it fights fast fashion by encouraging customers to buy and sell their worn wear, and even repairs used clothing. Patagonia is also committed to prioritizing the use of durable clothing materials, which in turn results in less energy, less water, and less trash overall.
If you take a quick scroll through New Belgium’s mission page, you’ll find countless third-party certifications to back up their sustainability claims. New Belgium is certified B corp, carbon neutral, and advocates to protect the Clean Water Act. They also have come out with an in-depth sustainability report outlining their initiatives and goals.
Perhaps one of the most tried-and-true ways to authenticate your green claims is to have a sustainability certification from a third party. Depending on your industry, there are likely companies that have a set of standards and practices you have to meet to receive a certification. Here are a few places to start:
Your brand won’t become the world’s most sustainable brand overnight. Instead, you can make a concentrated effort to set goals for what you’re going to accomplish over the next one, three, or five years. Most importantly, keep your trusting consumers updated on your goals and be honest in your journey to accomplish them.
Nearly every brand on earth is going to have an adverse effect on the environment in some way. Recognize your challenges and be honest in what you can and can’t do to offset them. So maybe you can’t quite meet organic food regulations. Why not? Does your product still have a good effect on the environment in some way? How are you doing your part? Call out those limits.
Need help bringing that voice to your website? At Ample, we specialize in helping brands write authentically about their sustainability practices. Take a look at our content marketing packages and contact us today.
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