Greenwash and how to spot it

If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel, it’s likely that you’ve seen some kind of variation of the little sign in the bathroom: re-use your towels and we can all help to do our bit for the environment. It was one of these signs that first inspired the word ‘greenwash’, back in 1986.

Environmentalist Jay Westerveld was staying at a hotel that was expanding in ways that were damaging the local environment, and they showed little awareness of green issues elsewhere on site. But when it suited them, they were happy to make it look like they cared. Re-using towels is clearly a cost saving exercise for a hotel, but by dressing it up as an environmental choice, they get a double benefit: saving money and making themselves look virtuous at the same time.

Obviously re-using your towel is an easy thing to do, and who needs fresh towels every day anyway? It’s when the language of environmentalism is used to give the appearance of care that it becomes greenwash – when there are no commitments or values underlying those claims. It is a self-serving or sometimes even false claim to be green.

Now an established term, the Oxford Dictionary calls greenwash “activities by a company or an organization that are intended to make people think that it is concerned about the environment, even if its real business actually harms the environment.”

Sticking with towels as an example, I know someone who was horrified to discover that the tea-towels in her work kitchen were thrown away after use. They are fabric tea-towels, more or less indistinguishable from those I use at home myself. She challenged the office manager over this, asking why they weren’t laundered and re-used. “Oh, it’s okay”, was the reply. “They’re eco-towels.”

They were called eco-towels because they’re apparently bio-degradeable. But the idea that you should dry up your office mugs and throw away the towel rather than dry it out and use it again is clearly bonkers. Most managers would think twice about buying ‘single-use’ or ‘disposable’ tea-towels, no matter how convenient it would be for the office rota. But eco-towels? Perfect.

Somewhat inevitably, this kind of green and vague language is on the rise, with more and more things describes as ‘eco’, ‘natural’, ‘green’ or ‘planet-friendly’. A recent global survey concluded that 40% of green claims made online were greenwash, and it’s not surprising that it is so common. The more people are aware of the climate and ecological crisis, the more we expect from the businesses we patronise. And it’s always easier to bring in superficial changes and shout loudly about them than it is to actually lower your footprint.

Unfortunately, greenwash has multiple corrosive effects. One is that it lets companies and organisations off the hook, because they have convinced people that they’re taking action. It prolongs the damage of bad environmental practice, reaping the rewards of doing the right thing without actually doing it.

It also undermines those who are honestly doing what they can. When greenwash abounds, people get cynical, and this is especially true among more activist audiences. We expect to be lied to, and don’t believe business claims even when they’re true. That strips away the incentive to change. Or companies don’t bother to tell anyone about their green policies in case they get accused of greenwash, which reduces the opportunity to model best practice, learn from each other, and normalise environmental stewardship.

So how do we spot it, and what do about it?

Last year, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), a regulatory branch of the British government, published the results of a global sweep of green claims. Common forms included vague language and no evidence, or firms using their own made up eco-labels rather than certified schemes. If shoppers stopped and thought about it, or looked them up, they wouldn’t fall for it. But of course firms expect us to be too busy to do that, and they rely on snap impressions and the power of suggestion.

In response, the CMA created a Green Claims Code, with advice for businesses on how to present green claims transparently. They also offer some simple advice for consumers, which is worth sharing:

  • Beware of slogans and vague language. ‘Green’ or ‘eco’ don’t mean anything.
  • Ask for evidence, the most obvious being a reputable certification or kitemark. Common ones include Soil Association, FSC wood, Rainforest Alliance, MSC fish, etc.
  • Appearances are meaningless. Brands often use images of nature and the colour green just to hint at environmental responsibility, without actually attempting any such thing.
  • Remember disposal, both of packaging and the product itself.
  • Consider the bigger picture. A product may be marginally better than others, but something that could never environmentally benign.

You can find out more about the Green Claims Code on their website, and they offer advice for reporting egregious claims. Don’t forget that if false green claims appear in ads, they can be challenged through the Advertising Standards Authority, who have rapped a handful of businesses over green claims recently.

While it’s important to challenge greenwash, we don’t want to accuse people of it too quickly. So it’s wise to ask people to prove it. And when we find good examples of companies that are doing things well, we can thank them for it.

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