Whitewashing is a metaphor meaning that a person, company, government, or other body has covered up or glossed over a crime, scandal, or unethical behavior by presenting a thin veil of accountability via a report or halfhearted investigation. The term comes from whitewash, which is a type of paint made from lime or chalk calcium carbonate.
What is greenwashing then and how can you spot authentically green brands?
Similar to whitewashing, greenwashing is a metaphor, only this time it describes a similar ‘wash’ being applied by corporations, governments, or others to pretend their practices are more sustainable or eco-friendly than they actually are. Greenwashing is a deceitful, disingenuous practice. It often involves the use of sneaky advertising and gimmickry in an effort to mislead consumers, taxpayers, or other interested parties to feel more favorable to a product, brand, or endeavor than they would if they knew the truth behind the greenwash.
In many cases, a company engaged in greenwashing spends more time, money, and energy touting the environmental benefits of their goods or services than they do on minimizing their environmental impact or actually doing something good for the planet.
Greenwashing is a shameless attempt to part customers from their cash by preying on their best intentions.
Unsurprisingly, at Leaf Score, we are not fans of greenwashing! In fact, a key part of our mission here is to separate fact from fiction and bring you the real deal: companies and products that are making genuinely eco-friendly goods or offering environmentally sound services while operating in a sustainable, healthy way for people and planet.
We didn’t invent the term though. Greenwashing seems to date back to 1986 and an essay by the Environmentalist Jay Westerveld. Over the years, many industries, companies, and governments, have engaged in greenwashing, with the practice growing ever more complex now that most of us have access to the internet and can quickly fact check many claims.
Examples of greenwashing – big and small
In the early days (I’m talking the 1960s to 1990s), companies like Chevron paid for splashy TV and print advertisements to showcase their dedication to saving the planet… all while extracting fossil fuels that have contributed to climate change and environmental degradation. In fact, even as Chevron’s ad was running on TV, the company was accused of violating the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
Another example comes from DuPont. The major chemicals company has a history of using marketing featuring happy, healthy looking marine animals and claims that they’ve taken steps to better safeguard the marine environment, while they were listed by some websites as one of the biggest corporate polluters in the United States.
Some examples of greenwashing are more about association than outright claims to be ‘green’. This can be as low key and subtle as putting a green leaf on a product, despite it being made of toxic chemicals that cause widespread pollution and are not in any way biodegradable. Other types of greenwashing can be seen in the names of products. Companies may call themselves ‘Organic’ or ‘Organik’ or something similar but have no actually certified organic ingredients in the products. The same is true for companies using names including the words ‘eco’ or ‘green’, none of which are protected or defined in the law.
Nowadays, given our ability to fact check, companies have gotten much cannier about greenwashing. This is why I spend hours, days, weeks even of my life poring through Corporate Sustainability Reports and grilling companies on their environmental practices. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited a company’s website, happily clicked on a big splashy link saying “We’re green!” only to find the link broken or that it leads to a bland statement on how said company loves the planet, with no concrete information on anything it is doing to be more eco-friendly and sustainable.
It gets worse, too. Some companies produce gargantuan annual reports on their environmental strategy that say absolutely nothing of substance. Or they’ll produce a major report one year, outlining a handful of minor sustainability goals, then never produce another report again.
Greenwashing tactics to watch out for
In addition to the issues already mentioned, here are some other greenwashing antics to be aware of:
Irrelevant, distracting claims – i.e., focusing on one aspect of a product that’s better than standard while ignoring the fact that everything else is environmentally terrible (such as energy efficient appliances made in polluting factories from toxic chemicals, plastics, and so forth)
Made up awards and certifications – some companies go to the trouble of creating their own in-house ‘eco’ certifications or even annual awards, then slap a logo on their products to make it look like they’ve been deemed sustainable by third-party, unbiased experts
Jargon – biosustainable, made with biobased polymers, ethical, fossil fuel free, biodegradable, compostable – these are just some of the phrases and terms thrown about in product marketing, and they often don’t mean much. Scientific terms are sometimes used inaccurately but are hard for the average consumer to understand and check.
Other terms have a grain of truth but the reality isn’t quite as rosy as the company would like us to believe. ‘Compostable’ is a good example of this; many products advertised as such can only be composted in specialist facilities, not in your home composter. Similarly, ‘biodegradable’ may only apply if conditions are perfect, and even then a product could take decades to fully decompose, leaching various chemicals and microplastics along the way
‘Carbon neutral’ – Sounds impressive if a company or product is carbon neutral, right? Not so fast. This term has no regulated definition, so can be used willy nilly by companies looking to look good. In most cases, a ‘carbon neutral’ product is only stated as such because the company let’s you, the consumer, offset carbon emissions associated with shipping the item! In only a very small percentage of companies is there evidence of a robust carbon accounting system with independent auditing of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with their supply chain, transportation, manufacturing, operating processes, shipping, and the end of life of a product. And even then, companies don’t always fully offset those GHGs in meaningful ways or take steps to reduce emissions.
‘Made with 100% recycled plastic’ or ‘made with 100% organic cotton’ – this is one of my biggest pet peeves. Sure, a company may make a product using cotton that is 100% organic, but what about the other materials, and is all the plastic in that other product recycled, or is just some of the plastic 100% recycled? Don’t be fooled by these claims. Always ask to see the full materials list.
Thankfully, some regulatory bodies and governments are getting wise to greenwashing and taking action. For instance, in 2019, Norway’s Forbrukertilsynet (Consumer Authority) began investigating fashion brand H&M for its claims regarding an ethical ‘Conscious’ collection. H&M’s marketing made it seem as though this collection was more eco-friendly and sustainable than the rest of their products, but there was little specificity about materials and processes, making it hard to truly assess sustainability.
How to spot authentically green brands that are truly sustainable
Given all the potential for greenwashing, it’s good to know how to spot a truly sustainable green brand. One approach is to look for B Corporations (Benefit Corporations).
By being accredited as a B Corp, a company is beholden to certain standards for reporting and improving practices year on year. The B Corp website is easy to navigate for consumers, meaning you can quickly check to see if a company is, in fact, still a B Corp as they claim and what their scores have been in certain areas over the preceding years. I tend to favor companies at Leaf Score that have been B Corps from their early days (or from when B Corps first started in 2006) and that demonstrated ongoing improvement and engagement in eco-friendly initiatives.
This is just one way to spot authentically green brands though. Other ways to verify green credentials include looking at a company’s entire product range. If there’s just one heavily marketed ‘green’ item in their range, chances are they’re just paying lip service to being sustainable. That said, if a company has a small range and has introduced a more eco-friendly item along with a robust timeline for switching their other products to more sustainable alternatives, they do win a few points from me. I’ll keep an eye on these kinds of companies to see if they follow through on their promises.
One such company is the clothing brand Boden. This UK company has already adopted a number of sustainable practices and, importantly, has made a public pledge to use 100% sustainable viscose from sustainably managed forests by 2025, use sustainably sourced cotton by 2025, including organic, recycled, Fairtrade, and Better Cotton Initiative cotton, and to switch their entire swimwear line to 100% regenerated or recycled materials by 2025.
Look for companies that outline concrete actions that can be measured and assessed, with a timeline to keep them accountable. Better yet, look at past sustainability reports to see if a company has met earlier targets. This makes it far easier for consumers to tell if a company is just greenwashing or is genuinely committed to being more sustainable and planet-friendly.
Salomon is another good example of a brand trying to be authentically green. The ski maker has already replaced the fiberglass and resin in its skis with bamboo veneers and has adopted a process that allows boards to be reheated and recycled. Salomon has also published a Restricted Substances List of chemicals that it doesn’t use in any products, and it signed on to the bluesign® system in 2013 (demonstrating a commitment to avoiding the use of many chemicals of concern).
Salomon is also an example of a company going beyond the legal requirement to restrict or eliminate the use of certain pollutants; the company voluntarily restricted or phased out using PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) chemicals before being required to do so by law.
This last point is an important one. Many companies engage in greenwashing by loudly proclaiming that their products are ‘free from’ various things or that they don’t engage in certain practices while making them. This sounds great (and it’s good they’re not breaking the law, presumably!) but if all they’re doing is the bare minimum, there’s little reason to applaud them and give them our money when there’s very likely another company making similar quality products in a much more eco-friendly way but with half the advertising budget.
What to look for in an authentically green brand
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a company enthusiastically proclaiming the eco-friendliness of their products. In fact, I wish more would! The trick, though, is to be practical, honest, accountable, and transparent about the eco-friendly nature of a good or service, and to ‘fess up when things aren’t quite as good as can be (with a clear plan in place to improve).
Truly sustainable products and services can involve such things as all materials in a product being recycled and recyclable (without exploiting human labor). Other practices and processes to look for include:
Non-polluting manufacturing practices, including closed loop systems, wastewater recycling and treatment, and zero-waste operations at all factories (Everyone, a toiletries company, is a great example)
Elimination of troublesome and toxic materials and chemicals such as azo dyes, chlorine bleach, phthalates, formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants, and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) (Avocado is a good example of a mattress company doing this)
Using renewable materials such as bamboo (that isn’t subject to harsh chemical processing), organic cotton, hemp, and wood from sustainably managed, ideally local forests (Green Cradle, a company making cribs in the US, is a good example of this)
Durable, repairable designs. Products that last longer and are easily repaired or have easily replaceable parts are much more eco-friendly over their lifecycle than disposable products (Teracube and Fairphone are good examples of phone companies doing this)
Being part of the circular economy, where the product can be returned to the company (or another company) to be repurposed, reused, or recycled into further useful products at no cost to the consumer (UpChoose baby clothing is a great example of this! As is Preserve, making recycled and recyclable disposable razors).
A couple of final points on greenwashing: even the best, most eco-friendly, sustainable products aren’t as good as we’d like if they are air-freighted halfway across the world in a glut of plastic packaging. So, shop local and try to choose zero-waste, refillable, reusable packaging options where possible.
And, lastly, the most sustainable products are those you already have. Just because something is new, exciting, and has a shiny green leaf on it and all the sustainability credentials we could hope for, doesn’t mean you actually need it. If more of us could remember to make do and mend, the planet would be a lot happier and healthier and, in all likelihood, so would we.